Review: Birmingham Royal Ballet in Romeo & Juliet at Sadler's Wells

Performance: 12 - 14 October 2010
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Wednesday 13 October 2010

Birmingham Royal Ballet's 'Romeo & Juliet'. Jenna Roberts & Iain Mackay.

Given that Kenneth MacMillan’s breathtaking choreography for *Romeo & Juliet* has been easily the most performed work by the Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House over the past four decades, one could be forgiven for thinking that the same ballet brought to London by the Birmingham Royal Ballet might be a shade risky. But, rather than being an identical twin of the Royal Ballet’s much-loved version, this is more like an attractive and intriguing distant cousin. For a start, it is dressed very differently. The opulent designs of MacMillan’s frequent collaborator Nicholas Georgiadis, never found their way to Birmingham. MacMillan himself chose a young design student, Paul Andrews, to dress the BRB version when the ballet was acquired by the company in 1992. Andrews took a flexible, subtle approach more suitable for a production that is frequently toured; and it works well, although I had quibbles about the lighting set, which unaccountably kept some characters unlit in certain scenes. Sadly, MacMillan died later in the year that BRB acquired his ballet and Andrews also passed away just 5 years later.

There was a marked depth and richness of characterisations right through the cast of this performance that provided finely detailed and fresh nuances of interpretation. This may, in part, be due to the closer proximity of the stage and the reduced scale of the ensemble scenes but it must also be the product of a strong continuity in the coaching of the roles over these past 18 years. In particular, the supporting roles of Rosalind and the Nurse shone out with a dramatic resonance that is often missed when the ballet is performed elsewhere and all credit must go respectively to Gaylene Cummerfield and Victoria Marr for investing these roles with much personality and wit. It is always a privilege to see Marion Tait perform and her Lady Capulet remains a triumph of tragic hysteria, cougarish sensuality and withering looks; in this last regard, she is unquestionably the Maggie Smith of balletic drama! I also greatly enjoyed the laddish vulnerability of Alexander Campbell’s Mercutio and the self-absorbed seriousness of Robert Parker’s Tybalt. In fact, at every level, the BRB performers gave their characters depth and imagination – even the background actors and corps de ballet dancers seemed to capture surprising little cameos of individualism for their unnamed characters.

It always helps to have an attractive and well-matched couple portraying Romeo and Juliet, an asset that was capitalised in this pairing of Iain Mackay and Jenna Roberts. Mackay is a tall and good-looking young man with a mop of curly, dark hair, who – with a coltish, exuberant reading of the young hero – looks every inch the way one might imagine Shakespeare’s Romeo to be. He started nervously and one could see trembling fingers struggling to maintain a hold in the early lifts of the brief ballroom duet but from the balcony pas de deux onwards he rightly gained in confidence and impact. Jenna Roberts also blossomed in every way as the performance progressed; she is a dancer with lovely, subtle phrasing and a beautiful line. The three key pas de deux – the iconic passages of MacMillan’s ballet – under the balcony, in the bedroom and the crypt were danced with great feeling and accuracy and I’ve perhaps not seen a more effective interpretation of Romeo’s despairing final duet with the lifeless body of his lover.

Jenna Roberts first came to my attention as the Juliet in Ballet Hoo! a Channel 4 reality TV drama that took kids from the streets of Birmingham and coached them to be part of a Romeo & Juliet performance. It was a spiritually uplifting programme and it is wonderful to see that the company is reprising the idea with another exciting project for children called Ballet, Birmingham and Me (BB&Me) [ – more info on] . This is a company with a heart; one that cares about its community and the people within it – and it’s pleasing to be reminded that this attention to the human scale of ballet is still present in the company’s performance with a rich attention to the minutiae that brings their characters to life.

The Birmingham Royal Ballet season at Sadler’s Wells continues with Romeo & Juliet on 13 & 14 October -and a mixed bill – Pointes of View on Friday & Saturday (evening & matinee). More details:

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