Review: Les Ballets de Monte Carlo - Roméo et Juliette - London Coliseum

Performance: 23 - 25 April 2015
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Wednesday 29 April 2015

Performance reviewed: 25 April 2015

Another week, another Romeo & Juliet, or so it seems. But, this interpretation by Jean-Christophe Maillot – recently brought into the repertory of Northern Ballet but here performed by Maillot’s own company from Monte Carlo – is so starkly original that it stands out from the crowd.

The first innovation comes with the curtain rising, bringing into view Ernest Pignon-Ernest’s unadorned set which manages to be architectural yet featureless; austere yet smooth. It brings both timelessness and a sense of any place to Maillot’s vision for Shakespeare’s narrative: Pignon-Ernest’s plain, colourless curved surfaces and rounded edges, his platforms and bridges, loom large like a giant toy set of structural blocks and panels. The lack of identifying features extends to similar minimalism in the use of props; there are no swords, daggers or phials of potions to clutter the set. Maillot allows just one burst of ornamentation, delivered through a bustling puppet show that takes place to Prokofiev’s mandolin dance in the street scene that opens Act 2.

Maillot’s focus is not so much on the warring families – Prince Escalus, Lord Capulet and the Montague parents are as absent as the daggers – as on the teenagers. The boys are young men behaving badly but their violence is incidental, almost accidental, and not the usual consequence of a clan war that underpins the plot. Maillot’s major twist lies in viewing the whole affair as nightmare flashbacks tormenting Friar Laurence (Alexis Oliveira) whose anguished presence is a leit motif through most scenes.

Any version of the play (danced or otherwise) will live or die on the chemistry between the star-crossed lovers and Noélani Pantastico and Lucien Postlewaite have built a cohesive bond of believability that envelopes the action and reaches out to the audience. They learned Maillot’s leading roles while principals at Seattle-based Pacific Northwest Ballet and are now dancing them together again in Monte Carlo. It was London’s special gain to reap the benefit of their considerable experience in evolving the emotion of every step and movement. When everything is stripped down to just the action, then there is an even greater onus on performances that are laid as bare as the set.

Hawaiian-born Pantastico portrays Juliet as a strong-willed, determined young woman unafraid of striking out both physically and psychologically. She is clearly a daughter from the same mould as her mother, Lady Capulet (April Ball) whose authority is sketched through a disciplined pattern of classical steps and arabesques. Postlewaite is especially believable as the irresponsible young man whose sentimentality is ignited by the “love-at-first-sight” spark: a moment that is beautifully articulated in Maillot’s choreography.

Both teenagers are unable to control emotions that boil over. Rarely have I seen Romeo attack Tybalt (Alvaro Prieto) with such uncontrolled rage, strangling him with a scarf soaked in Mercutio’s blood; and at the beginning of the bedroom scene, a melting, painful, parting pas de deux is pre-empted by Juliet slapping Romeo violently. Tybalt is here a character more sympathetically drawn than is usual. His murder of Mercutio (George Oliveira) is an unintended consequence of a scuffle getting out of hand. The fatal blow (with a puppet’s club) is enacted in slow motion; a device that Maillot uses occasionally and to great effect, to heighten the tension and accentuate the significance of vital moments in the plot.

Mercutio and Tybalt aren’t the only characters to die in strange ways: Romeo seems to impale himself on the sharp edge of Juliet’s catacomb; and Juliet strangles herself with some blood-soaked “string” that she pulls from her dead husband’s corpse as if she has severed his entrails . Despite the originality of their causes of death, the ending is nonetheless appropriately tragic. It is, however, to the tortured presence of the Friar that the audience is directed for their final thought. It’s all his fault.

Maillot first made a Romeo and Juliet back in 1986 and his thoughtful treatment of such a well-known drama has evolved over almost thirty years. Punctuated by moments of humour, often delivered by Gaëlle Riou’s jaunty Nurse, and enhanced by a minimal – yet strong – design ethos (one should also mention the added value of Jérôme Kaplan’s simple and effective costumes), this best-known tale of love and death has been superbly reduced to the concentrated essence of splendid dance theatre.

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for, and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is chairman of the dance section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards. Twitter: @gwdancewriter

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