Review: English National Ballet - Romeo and Juliet - Royal Albert Hall
It may seem odd but questions of age and gender discrimination concerned me intermittently throughout this show. Age, due to the contrast between Shakespeare’s tragic young lovers, Juliet, whom we know to be 13 (“…she hath not seen the change of fourteen years”) and Romeo, age unspecified (but “upon whose tender chin, as yet, no manlike beard there grew” ) and the dancers here playing them, Tamara Rojo (40, last month) and Carlos Acosta (41, last week). And gender discrimination because, really, this is Juliet’s ballet. Star-crossed is an oft-heard strapline for Shakespeare’s tragic romance but really the stars should cross in terms of their billing. In this welcome era of equality it really should be Juliet and Romeo in every sense.
Rojo is a beautiful actress who just happens to dance beautifully. She has no trouble projecting youth convincingly and her charisma and passion for the role absorbs the voluminous Royal Albert Hall like a space-eating sponge, creating a magical kinesphere of intimacy that radiates the power and subtlety of her sophisticated – yet sometimes raw – sense of drama like the all-pervasive steam of a sauna. That Rojo is able to command this huge arena so completely is partly attributable to Acosta’s generosity: his Romeo is charmingly understated in a one-sided match that works so well. Age is itself an unfair arbiter of gender discrimination: while Rojo’s dancing skill (in this ballet, at least) maintains the highest of trajectories, the athletic virtuosity expected of the male is inevitably somewhat diminished at this late stage in Acosta’s career, although it is more than amply compensated by secure and sensitive partnering and an intuitive command of the character. These two almighty stars of the ballet are so mutually supportive that they would lift the worst of productions into the highest rank.
Derek Deane’s off-the-shelf choreography is not especially memorable but he is a supreme story-teller and uses this enormous space adroitly, deploying a huge cast with unerring skill. Romeo & Juliet shouldn’t work ‘in the round’ where the focal point of the action is frequently viewed through the moving multiple obstacles of the corps de ballet. But it does, not least because Deane invests every character with personality and purpose. In the market scenes, every extra seems to have a story (and incidentally some well-known dancers have joined ENB for these performances, including former Ballet Black dancers Sarah Kundi and Jade Hale-Christophi) and every scene has a momentous significance. So, for example, when Juliet visits Friar Laurence to receive the sleeping potion, this is often no more than a bridge of the merest narrative explanation but here it is invested with such poignant emotion (heart-wrenchingly acted by Rojo and Luke Heydon). Another strength in Deane’s interpretation is to give much more attention to the role of Rosaline (alluringly portrayed by Begoña Cao) as a flirtatious foil for Romeo right up until the fateful moment his eyes meet those of Juliet.
A simple, yet significant, casting decision paired Acosta with his nephew Yonah Acosta as Mercutio, and together with Junor Souza’s Benvolio this made for a tightly-knit trio we could believe in. Fabian Reimair is an excellent, menacing Tybalt and he and the Acosta boys enjoyed some rigorous sword-fighting, the authenticity of which might have improved without the generously blunted tips to the weaponry, although I fancy that Reimair took a blow to the face from Yonah Acosta’s blade in Act 1. Jane Haworth and James Streeter gave notable accounts of the Capulets.
This was an evening in which the whole ensemble rose to their task as one. The only flaw in an otherwise impeccable performance was the clunky set shifting (the iconic balcony scene was unfortunately prefaced by the moving pedestal being bumped noisily into backdrop). The Orchestra of the English National Ballet under the experienced direction of Gavin Sutherland delivered the best narrative ballet score of the twentieth century with considerable aplomb, wringing out every scintilla of the extreme richness of emotion to heighten the drama throughout this outstanding performance, which looks set to be a scintillating highlight of London’s summer season. And, don’t worry if you can’t catch Rojo’s luminescent performance because right now this is a company star-studded with impassioned, tear-jerking Juliets. Miss one and there will be another just as good tomorrow.
Continues at the Royal Albert Hall until 22 June
Carlos Acosta and Tamara Rojo perform on 11, 13, 15 & 17 June only
Photos: Arnaud Stephenson
Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He writes for londondance.com, Dancetabs.com, Dancing Times, Dance Europe and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle and of the National Dance Awards in the UK.
Even from my cheap seat up in the rafters, Tamara Rojo's emotional performance grabbed me and pulled me into the story, and I agree that it was easy to believe her to be a young girl overwhelmed by love. Carlos Acosta, on the other hand, had more of a challenge, dancing alongside the energetic and sparkling Yonah Acosta and Junor Souza. But dancing together, their chemistry was palpable and beautifully tender. So glad to have witnessed such a wonderful reunion!
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