Review: Royal Ballet in Romeo & Juliet at O2 Arena

Performance: 17 - 19 June 2011
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Sunday 19 June 2011

Royal Ballet 'Romeo & Juliet' O2 Arena June 2011

Reviewed: 17 June

Remember Millennium Eve? It doesn’t seem all that long ago, but long enough for most to have ceased the habit of calling this amazing feat of engineering on the North Greenwich Peninsular by its original name. We might just remember the difficult press that the Millennium Dome received: a PR death wish caused by leaving journalists stranded on that New Year’s Eve of all New Years’ eves. In the decade since, the Dome has fundamentally reinvented itself as the O2 – perhaps the most brilliant piece of marketing in 21st Century London; made even more astute by it being a 2012 Olympic Venue (for Basketball and Artistic Gymnastics). Since O2 is not an Olympic Sponsor the Dome will have to use a temporary name over the course of the Games but I bet that every British visitor to these sports (assuming that any of us get tickets) will still call it the O2!

Looking over a sea of nearly 10,000 people watching Romeo & Juliet, I wondered if the O2 hasn’t now become the vehicle for ballet’s own renaissance because I suspect that Arena Ballet might be here to stay. Just listening and talking to people in the several queues one endures at the O2, it was evident that many were happy to see ballet in this environment who had not previously felt attracted to experience it at the Royal Opera House. Regular balletomanes might be appalled at these new age comings and goings; I’ve never seen so many people walk out of a ballet while it is being performed, often returning armed with pizzas, fish & chips or plastic cups brimful with beer. You can’t do these things at the Royal Opera House (and thank God for that) but it is all part of the Arena Experience and we must accept it. To get the most of the experience, there should perhaps be a supporting act – perhaps Les Sylphides could be a candidate – which, true to the Arena culture, hardly anyone will watch but it would get the audience in the mood and have them all seated in time for the main event.

My last three O2 visits were to see Kylie, Beyoncé and Rafa Nadal; and, in the world of classical ballet, Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta are no lesser superstars than these ‘A’ Listers of pop and tennis. Just as I saw Nadal demolish Thomas Berdych in the ATP World Tour Finals, so did this production deconstruct all preconceptions of how ballet should be presented. Three giant screens above the stage gave a closer view of the action (and who could complain about the sight of Rojo and Acosta in close-up High Definition) and yet the screens were positioned so that it was easy to keep the action on stage always in focus, alongside these detailed reference points above. My strategy was to watch the stage and glance at the screens only when I felt it would help (or I was seduced by the Rojo close-ups). What little was lost in intimacy was more than compensated by the grandeur of scale that the venue achieved like no other could. For many years, one of the actors in the marketplace scenes has been Dave Roberts – a lovely guy who along with so many others brings a depth of realism and character to these crowd scenes by being so much more than an extra. For me, Dave and his fellow artists are icons: so long as they are on stage then all is well with the Royal Ballet. Often, I have trouble picking these faces out of the crowd on the Opera House stage but here, with so much more space, these wonderful actors and artists of the corps de ballet were always easy to identify.

The set could not be changed throughout the ballet and transitions between scenes were facilitated by excellent brief films, directed by the BalletBoyz (Michael Nunn and William Trevitt). These were effective cameos of unseen aspects of a linear narrative: thus we saw Juliet being prepared for bed by her nurse before the famous balcony scene and Lady Capulet grieving over Tybalt’s corpse (although it wasn’t the Lady C of this cast, though I guess that few would have noticed). The best innovations are often born of necessity and the requirement to fill the space between scenes without scenery to be changed or a curtain to close led to this very useful and interesting addition. I never thought I would be praising the BalletBoyz for being agents of theatrical deconstruction but by incorporating film of characters in the wings and behind the set, this is exactly what was achieved.

The stars of the Royal Ballet were out in force for this groundbreaking event, with Principal dancers playing Tybalt (Thiago Soares), Benvolio (Sergei Polunin), Paris (Rupert Pennefather), and one of the three harlots (Laura Morera, alongside Francesca Filpi and Helen Crawford) plus five Principal Character Artists in other roles. Polunin even doubled up to provide the unique spectacle of having Benvolio lead the Mandolin dance as a late replacement for Paul Kay (who should have danced the separate role). Great artists such as José Martin (Mercutio), Genesia Rosato (Juliet’s Nurse), Elizabeth McGorian (Lady Capulet) and Gary Avis (Prince Escalus) had no trouble projecting their drama across this enormous space.

The O2 is a giant arena for huge stars and the magic to fill every cubic centimetre to bursting point came in the coruscating performances of Rojo and Acosta, providing heart-rending passion and drama as the tragic young lovers, especially through Kenneth MacMillan’s four majestic pas de deux. Both dancers are nearing the end of illustrious careers but neither will have succeeded in capturing the hearts and minds of so many people in a single performance. The fact that this may not include those popping out for an extra beer or some chips at the most crucial moments hardly matters at all.

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