Seen against the turmoil of 20th-century Italy: Polish National Ballet in Krzysztof Pastor’s Romeo and Juliet

Online on OperaVision
April 19, 2021

Charlotte Kasner

Perhaps more than any other of his plays, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has lent itself to successful adaptation, in dance, drama and film. While choreographer Krzysztof Pastor and Dutch dramaturg Willem Bruls remain faithful to the story, and opt for the Prokofiev score, albeit reordered, they reject the Renaissance setting, instead setting it against three periods of 20th-century Italy. The country’s underlying political and social divisions and conflicts resurface repeatedly as the tragedy is played out.

The performance starts in Mussolini’s Facist Italy, continues during the terror of the Red Brigades, and ends in the times of Silvio Berlusconi. The underlying social divisions keep resurfacing decade after decade, provoking political, ethnic, and religious conflicts within the community. It is within this context that the young, eternally symbolised by Romeo and Juliet, live their love story.

It’s not only the Renaissance location and costumes that have been dispensed with. Pastor strips the production of any extraneous details. Gone too is much of the ballroom, some characters including the Nurse, and an extended death scene for Mercutio. It is none the worse for any of the latter in particular.

The 1930s opening in particular reminds one of the excellent film of Richard II, also set in a fascist state of that decade. But while it would never do to lose the more traditional interpretations, like Swan Lake, the material is strong enough to cope with updated versions, especially when they are as good as this. And it is utterly terrific, with a fine cast led by Patrick Walczak as Romeo and Yuka Ebihara as Juliet.

Yuka Ebihara and Patryk Walczak in Krzysztof Pastor's Romeo and JulietPhoto Marta Wódz
Yuka Ebihara and Patryk Walczak
in Krzysztof Pastor’s Romeo and Juliet
Photo Marta Wódz

As Juliet, Ebihara is very much a confident upper-class lady of her time. If anything, Walczak’s sensitive Romeo is the more vulnerable of the two. While their big pas deux lack the soaring ecstasy of some, they convey well their feelings for each other.

Originally premiered by Scottish Ballet in 2014, the production opens with projections of Mussolini’s Italy. Here, as later, the film blends seamlessly into the set. Couples promenade in a square until the fascists enter and conflict begins. There is a real frisson obtained in the updating, the sense of danger palpable. The company fall prone as Juliet walks through the scene as projections of the devastation left by the Second World War flicker behind her.

Joined by her friends, the mood lightens, however. But not for long. The powerful evocation of fascism that is the Dance of the Knights quite literally sent shivers down my spine. Pastor also allows Romeo and Juliet to circle each other in what is possible some of the most powerfully emotive ballet music ever written, thus neatly setting the scene for what is to follow. Suffice to say that the choice that Lord Capulet presents to Juliet is not limited to mere romantic preference.

Maksim Woitiul (Tybalt) and Marco Esposito (Lord Capulet)Photo Marta Wódz
Maksim Woitiul (Tybalt) and Marco Esposito (Lord Capulet)
Photo Marta Wódz

Act II moves onto the Italy of the 1970s and the Red Brigades, Romeo and Juliet’s romance echoing through the county’s ‘Years of Lead’. Friar Laurence (a very snappy dresser for a priest) marries the couple having been led to them by Juliet’s friends.

He also tries to intervene in the fight in the square after Mercutio has been killed but of course, in vain. The political backdrop is emphasised again as images are projected of some of the fifty victims of the Red Brigade bombs, and Juliet once more walks through the cast, who this time are kneeling.

Romeo having headed into exile, Juliet collapses onto her bed, comforted by Lady Capulet who knows little of what has occurred. Indeed, she is generally empathetic with her daughter. Perhaps she too has been in a similar position. And it is she who later fetches Friar Laurence, which enables Juliet to obtain the potion.

The stony-faced Lord Capulet is not so forgiving. When he presents Juliet to Paris, there is a wonderful moment, only allowable in the close up of film, where her face crumples for a couple of seconds as she is thrust towards him.

Forwarding to the turn of the 21st-century, the procession of mourners to Juliet’s death bed is backed by projections of Silvio Berlusconi. “Fake news, fake news,” we cry. But truth and fiction are hard to separate in the modern-day populist state. Romeo cannot tell the difference either and so the tragedy unfolds.

Tatyana van Walsum’s costumes begin in monochrome palette with simple, well-cut lines. The colour-coding not only looks chic but greatly assists in character definition. The second section adds red and beige to the mix. Her set may be minimal but the backdrop has more than a suggestion of a panopticon, which helps squeeze every drop of drama out of the ballet. Although performed not in the round, there are always windows present and watching eyes everywhere.

There is a brief video with the leads discussing the production as a bonus.

Krzysztof Pastor’s “Romeo and Juliet” is available free on OperaVision  and YouTube until September 15, 2021.