Sumptuous: English National Ballet in Nureyev’s Romeo & Juliet

Royal Festival Hall, London
August 1, 2017

Maggie Foyer

Rudolf Nureyev’s Romeo & Juliet is celebrating its 40th anniversary and with the sumptuous costumes spruced up and boasting some superb talent, it remains a vibrant theatrical feast. Nureyev has taken his lead from Shakespeare’s text and following Prokofiev’s well-loved score, he delivers a great deal of story in addition to a great deal of dance.

Nureyev created the role of Romeo to suit his talents, and in a marathon feat, danced every performance in the opening season. It is a hugely demanding role and packed with dance. The choreography is not the strongest element and fewer steps would serve as well, even when Romeo is Isaac Hernández, the ideal of Renaissance youth, bursting with charm and in command of a ballet technique par excellence. But this is Juliet’s ballet and the star of the evening was Erina Takahashi, as brave and strong a heroine as you could wish for. The fact that she did not get a dozen curtain calls was more to do with the venue – the unlovely Royal Festival Hall – and historical hierarchies, than any reflection on her performance.

English National Ballet in Romeo & JulietLaurent Liotardo
English National Ballet in Romeo & Juliet
Laurent Liotardo

Juliet is introduced as a lively adolescent accompanied by her nurse, Laura Hussey, whose lusty behaviour suggests she will understand the passions of young love. Takahashi, dancing on top form, is at first, simply a girl utterly and completely in love. It is at the end of the second act confronted with her new husband, now a murderer, that her inner strength and true depth are revealed. Her macabre coupling with death, as prelude to her post nuptial pas de deux with Romeo, is an astute piece of theatre, as is the trio with the phantom Mercutio and Tybalt, allowing Takahashi to explore every nuance in the character. As Juliet matures, the arranged marriage to the handsome and vacuous Paris, Emilio Pavan, seems almost surreal. Hernández, has considerably less dramatic scope as Romeo but makes the most of his dance opportunities to display crisp batterie and brilliant turns. However, in the final scene in the tomb he finds his emotional core in a fitting climax.

Mercutio, a spirited performance from Fernando Bufalá, gave a high comedy performance that would have benefitted from an occasional change of register and a touch of cynicism. He comes to the rescue when Romeo is enraptured by Juliet and gives a brilliant display of swordsmanship battling Tybalt. Although hampered by the lack of space, the fight scenes, both the brawling peasants and the sword wielding nobles, are convincingly real and accompanied by choice vulgar gestures – those suggested by Shakespeare and a few more.

Erina-Takahashi as Juiet in Romeo & JulietLaurent Liotardo
Erina-Takahashi as Juiet in Romeo & Juliet
Laurent Liotardo

The production brings depth to some of the secondary characters. Rosaline, Alison McWhinney, is no shadowy vision, but a feisty and flirtatious young woman. Tybalt, James Streeter, has an early scene showing touching concern for Juliet which adds a gentler dimension to his fierce character but finds Rottweiler ferocity when demanded by the role.

Nureyev’s dramatic choices: the bookends of the four gamblers dicing with death and the predawn funeral procession, effectively ground the work revealing a society living in the moment but constantly aware of the capriciousness of fate and the perils of making the wrong choices in life and love.

The pageantry of flag waving, the acrobats and the courtly play of the Wheel of Fortune spice the action with a rich flavour of Renaissance Italy. The designs, by Ezio Frigerio, balance the extravagance of metres of gorgeous fabrics with the elegant simplicity of the principals’ costumes. This production is a feast for the senses but one that would have looked so much better in a real theatre.