Review: Royal Ballet - Romeo and Juliet - Royal Opera House

Performance: In rep 19 September - 2 December 2015
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Wednesday 23 September 2015

Royal Ballet - 'Romeo and Juliet' Sarah Lamb & Steven McRae. Photo: Alice Pennefather, courtesy ROH.

Live relay reviewed at BAFTA, 22 September

It’s a mark of the growing importance of these cinema relays that the Royal Opera House took over the BAFTA HQ in Piccadilly to hold a launch party for this year’s season opener, preceding a live transmission in the BAFTA theatre. Opening both the 2015/16 Royal Ballet and Live Cinema Seasons with performances of Romeo and Juliet is an apt celebration of the 50th Anniversary year of Kenneth MacMillan’s great interpretation of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Having missed the opening performance, three nights’ earlier, it was also a chance for me to play catch-up since the cast for the cinema relay was the same as on the first night.

Before addressing the on-stage activity, let me say that the person deserving of top billing for this cinematic experience of MacMillan’s opus is another ‘Mac’: the screen director, Ross MacGibbon. His seamless flow of long-shots, close-ups, left and right perspectives provided a unique vision and clarity for the Royal Ballet’s presentation, thereby illuminating unrecognised beauty spots on the face of a much-loved friend.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet but – thanks to MacGibbon’s direction – here I picked out many nuances that are not normally seen from a seat in the Royal Opera House. There were isolated occasions where I might have chosen a different shot – for example, cutting away from Romeo’s duel with Tybalt to show the market crowd’s reactions lost some of the visceral momentum of the fight; but, by and large, MacGibbon’s direction hit the right visual choice every time.

The cinema relay was further improved by the late addition of Ore Oduba to support Darcey Bussell as co-host, which brought an added air of informal professionalism to the live presentation (although the presenters’ need to read autocue from above the camera was occasionally off-putting). There were also some timing glitches in the transitions between the backstage live chat and the on stage action, which meant cinema audiences were left looking at a light fitting for a while, with the muffled sound of a pre-performance on-stage announcement in the background. It all added to the delicious undercurrent of anxiety that goes with the territory of live filming a theatrical experience from both the back and front of stage!

There were several excellent interviews in the front-end film, notably with this performance’s stars: Steven McRae (Romeo), Sarah Lamb (Juliet), Gary Avis (Tybalt), Alexander Campbell (Mercutio), Tristan Dyer (Benvolio) and Christopher Saunders (Lord Capulet, but also notably the Ballet Master responsible for staging the show). The insights given by the performers provided a fascinating preamble to the ballet.

One of these illuminating references was Sarah Lamb’s assertion that – in Juliet – Shakespeare created one of the first feminists: a wilful young girl who rebelled against societal and parental expectations. It’s an interpretation that Lamb herself has to work hard to achieve. Her pale fragility tends to lend itself towards an air of vulnerability; the polar opposite of her own definition of the feisty teenage rebel. It’s a contest that I have felt she hasn’t won, when viewed from a seat in the orchestra stalls, but MacGibbon’s close-ups show the detail of determination and self-will in Lamb’s acting that has not previously been obvious to me. This was an outstanding performance, adding many of her own nuances – notably in the final scene – to create an interpretation of Juliet that is unique: to be clear, she doesn’t change any of MacMillan’s iconic choreography but draws her own dots in-between.

McRae’s interpretation of Romeo is also full of intuitively observed detail, fleshing out the devoted son, fun-loving adventurer, passionate lover and angry fighter. His virtuoso dancing has always been excitingly delivered with control, even at full throttle, but now it is tempered by a maturity of expression in an acting ability that matches his supreme dancing skills with the same breadth of versatility. McRae took over as first-cast Romeo when Rupert Pennefather left The Royal Ballet recently but – in my opinion – it was already his by right.

In his recorded interview before the performance, McRae said that the Royal Ballet has “some of the best Tybalts” and the best of the best must surely be Gary Avis. Tybalt’s duel with Romeo is astonishingly real with Avis and McRae cutting and slicing at each other with venomous intent while racing across the stage. Avis leads a supporting cast (especially in the character roles) of enormous experience that delivers an outstanding level of dramatic performance. Genesia Rosato’s Nurse is a delight; Elizabeth McGorian embodies the matriarchal Lady Capulet with both autocratic coldness and grief-stricken pathos; and amongst the relative newcomers, praise must be heaped upon Itziar Mendizabal’s charismatic command as the flame-haired harlot. One nice cameo for McRae was a brief market-place dance with his wife, Elizabeth Harrod.

MacMillan’s enormous contribution to British Ballet was acknowledged through a recorded interview with his widow, Deborah, and a live onscreen chat between Darcey Bussell and their daughter, Charlotte. These intimate memories added a rich context to the performance. After fifty years, MacMillan’s ballet is clearly cherished by the company on which it was made as much as it is by the family of the man who made it. His greatest achievement is to have created ballets that remain fresh, relevant and modern decades after they were made.

Continues in rep until 2 December 2015. Dates & casting:

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

Photos: Alice Pennefather, courtesy ROH

Your Comments

  1. Alan Wood 26 September 2015

    Love being able to enjoy the ballet and opera at a cost suitable for my pension! Do not consider Ore Oduba's contribution added to the evening's enjoyment at all. He should stick to sport, children's TV and leave culture to those better qualified. He was totally out of his depth and spoiled the evening for me. Sorry, Ore, you're very good in other fields.

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