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'Romeo and Juliet' - Royal Opera House

Shakespeare’s archetypal tragic coupling is once again brought to British shores, historically first claimed in its balletic form by Soviet Russia before being revitalised in the name of patriotism by the supremely iconic Kenneth MacMillan in the 1960s. His distinctive choreographic style, characterised by punchy realism and naturalistic movement, is one that finds itself well-matched by the Bard of Avon’s offerings of insight into human nature.

Photograph: Tristram Kenton/Guardian

Though often seen as the ultimate triumph of love, Romeo and Juliet is still very much centred on death, with the mangled bodies already heaped within Act I serving as a portension for what is to yet to come. The harrowing sword fight prior immediately sets the stage, and a very clear sense of obstinate duality is established. Gary Avis as Tybalt kickstarts the violence – high on egotism, dressed in lush scarlet, and of a temper reflected in his garb. Romeo’s trusty sidekick (and rumoured lover, in niche academic circles) Mercutio provides comic relief with his well-placed jabs, but only tragedy ensues, unsurprisingly.

Lauren Cuthbertson as Juliet is an intuitive casting – she draws out Juliet’s initial childishness to a T, readily executing bourrées in times of hesitance (Paris would be better off looking elsewhere) or playfulness (more than a few titters escaped the audience on opening night as a shocked Juliet suddenly clasped the newly-formed fruits of her puberty). Then, upon locking eyes with Matthew Ball’s Romeo, she is stirred by unnamed longings, slowly but smoothly blossoming, grand jetés abound. Ball complements Cuthbertson’s raw fluidity with his own dynamic leaps and lifts, as expected. Both shoulder the technical complexities of MacMillan’s choreography with ease, and together, they are a sigh-inducing, youthful picture of beauty – particularly when at the mercy of one another’s tragically miscoordinated suicides.

Photograph: City A.M.

Romeo and Juliet’s sweeping score is perhaps one of the most well-recognised of the balletic repertoire, and one for which we have Prokofiev to thank. His extensive use of Leitmotifs goes beyond merely signalling the presence of characters, hinting at their mannerisms and changes in mood, even rendering thematic abstractions such as Love and Strife that are so gorgeously overwrought in a ménage à trois of Shakespearean-MacMillanian-Prokofievan artistry.

Nicholas Georgiadis’ hand-picked hues of terracottas and ochres are especially resplendent, richly daubed onto cobbled structures of a multidimensional nature. Complemented by marbled colonnades and stairways, this makes for a highly versatile backdrop that can be seen to subtly transition from palazzo, to town square, to balcony, and back. Georgiadis clearly excels in bringing together a truly Venetian Renaissance aesthetic – one that will almost certainly appeal to admirers of Zeffirelli. Houppelandes (those cumbersome drape-heavy things reminiscent of yestercentury) in an array of jewel tones are sported by the ladies, while the lords strut alongside putting on airs and graces (and similarly colourful tunics). The masked ball is an affair of pomp and splendour, accompanied by the ominous notes of the Dance of the Knights. Said theme serves partly to identify the Capulet household, and for Tybalt in particular, it is evocative of the clannish belligerence that ultimately provokes tragedy.

Photograph: Tristram Kenton/Guardian

MacMillan finds a precarious balance between beauty and brutality in this oft-revived retelling of the immortal star-cross’d lovers, the latter brought to life (then, three acts later, unceremoniously killed off) by Royal Ballet darlings Lauren Cuthbertson and Matthew Ball. The Bard’s words ‘For never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo’ ring ever true.

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