Review: Mark Morris Dance Group in Romeo & Juliet, On Motifs of Shakespeare at Barbican Theatre

Performance: 5 - 8 Nov 2008
Reviewed by Mary Kate Connolly - Friday 7 November 2008

When Sergei Prokofiev set about breathing musical life into Shakespeare‘s iconic young lovers, he envisioned them as star-crossed, but ultimately not ill-fated. Influenced perhaps by the political climate of 1930s Russia, the ballet sought to re-conceive Shakespeare’s play (in the words of the ballet’s original director) as a ‘struggle for the right to love by…progressive people battling against feudal traditions.’ As with many large scale musical works, the score as it is known today has been for various (and often not artistic) reasons chopped, altered and augmented. For his version of the work, Mark Morris has teamed up with Simon Morrison, Professor of Music at Princeton University, to reconstruct Prokofiev’s score, scenario and artistic intent in as faithful a fashion as their archival research will permit. A tall order indeed to fulfil such heady sentiments, but Morris’ attempt to do so certainly makes for refreshing viewing.

From the moment the curtain rose on a sleek bare stage surrounded by pale wood panels, inhabited by characters in tights and swords yes, but also by women in flowing bohemian skirts and head scarves, one had the feeling of being in different, uncharted territory. The jostling between Montagues and Capulets on a bustling square in Verona was expressed through free-flowing, rhythmic choreography, with just enough Shakespearean bawdiness in gesture and demeanour, thrown in for good measure.

In set and costume, a reduction was in evidence, in comparison to the lavish spectacle afforded by larger balletic versions of the work. The effect of this however was not to diminish, but in fact to heighten the identification one had with the characters onstage. Rather than fairytale ghosts, there was a certain earthiness to Morris’ lovers and their warring families. Such earthiness equipped his Juliet with the resourcefulness and strength of will which Shakespeare bestowed upon her, but which is so often lost in the meek sylph-like visions of her balletic incarnation. Moments of other-worldly magic still had the ability to enchant, such as the fateful first time the lovers circled each other gingerly, palms outstretched, and furthermore when they finally clasped hands in a rushed, fevered vow before Juliet’s nurse burst in upon their balcony scene.

Morris’ choreography is rooted in, but not shackled to, a sleek classical style. Balletic line is pleasingly ruptured by off-kilter glides, stamps and fanciful throwaways such as a flexed foot, a head cocked to one side or arms in right-angled arcs, defying the smooth ease of stretched and rhythmic feet. At all times it seemed that Morris could not resist toying playfully with the score, choreography articulating note by note, facets of the music which might go unheard in the face of less meticulous treatment. There were times early on in the work when this articulation felt a little too noticeable, rendering the choreography a sculpture of the musical contours. As the ballet progressed however, this gave way to a more equal marriage of music and dance.
For the most part, Morris’ choreography appeared totally at home in this gripping tale, but some particularly dramatic moments felt marred by a sudden, incongruous return to more rigorous classical vocabulary. After a spine-chilling death-dance, Mercutio’s final, staged fall to the floor seemed contrived and almost slapstick in comparison to the nauseating realism which had gone before. A disservice to Amber Darragh who in the gestural and costumed guise of a man, created a Mercutio so amorous, gutsy and mischievous, that his death was by far the most tragic moment in the work.

Perhaps the most pleasing aspect of Morris’ production was the addition of dances originally cut from the ballet. Thus as Juliet lies sleeping, her family are entertained by Paris who brings nuptial gifts, performing three rousing and light-hearted dances with his entourage, before the fraught discovery of Juliet’s lifeless body. Finally, in a momentous plot twist and in keeping with Prokofiev’s wishes, the lover’s cheat death, giving rise to a last duet which proved the romantic and choreographic pinnacle of the work. Far from diminishing any emotional impact in creating a ‘happy ever after’ ending, the raw beauty of seeing Juliet awakening before Romeo’s disbelieving eyes, and the thankful tenderness of the embrace which followed, proved just as eye-watering as the usual desperate dagger plunge. In Morris’ Romeo and Juliet, the futility of feuds and war is proved eloquently, not in hate and death, but in love and defiant life.

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