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

Performance: in rep until 7 December 2013
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Monday 21 October 2013

Royal Ballet's Lauren Cuthbertson & Federico Bonelli in 'Romeo & Juliet'. Photo: Bill Cooper, courtesy ROH

Performance reviewed: 19 October 2013

The Royal Ballet’s signature work is The Sleeping Beauty and there are many strong historical reasons that this should be so. But, since it was first performed in 1965, Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo & Juliet has been regularly featured in the repertoire, clocking up more than 450 performances at the Royal Opera House (plus many more on tour). This production must be more deeply ingrained in the DNA of the company’s dancers and staff than any other.

I well recall being present on an Easter Bank Holiday Monday, almost ten years ago, when a young rising star of British ballet, Lauren Cuthbertson, then still just 19, made her debut as Juliet (opposite Edward Watson). Since then she has enjoyed more great successes (perhaps, most notably in creating the title role in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland ) but in recent years she has suffered two distressingly long periods of illness and injury that have kept her away from the stage for far too long. Until this performance, Cuthbertson had not danced a full-length ballet for 18 months. So, in a very real sense this performance of Juliet represented an awakening for the Royal Ballet’s own sleeping beauty.

And it seemed as if she had never been away. Her Juliet is very different now from the interpretation of that 19 year-old. Then she swam fast and free, a young girl full of excitement and wonder wholly focused on the explosion of love for Romeo; now, it’s much more of a deep dive into a rounded characterisation that is full of richly observed nuances in her relationships with everyone from her nurse, parents and cousin (Tybalt) to her friends and suitor, Paris. It is possible to rely on tugging the heartstrings with a one-dimensional emphasis on the sentimentality of this tragedy but throughout her performance I was taken with Cuthbertson’s holistic approach to a complete immersion in her character. The extent of her overnight transformation from playful child to the subtle, artfulness of an adult, desperately seeking a survival strategy through deceit, is skilfully played out, not least in her interactions with Paris. In this role, I must credit Valeri Hristov for creating a character with passion since so many others in the past have appeared resigned to the fact they are playing a plank of wood (albeit one with nobility and wealth).

While Cuthbertson gave no betrayal of the nerves that must have accompanied her return to the stage in the full spotlight of this opening night, her partner as Romeo, Federico Bonelli, took until the Balcony Scene at the end of Act I to fully settle down. He has also missed many performances in recent years through recurrent injury and his dancing before and at the Capulet Ball showed some signs of over-rotation, problems with balance and surprisingly noisy landings. However, these issues were soon laid to rest and Bonelli danced strongly and securely through the key scenes to follow, not least in the three pas de deux with Juliet (all superb) and he gave an effective fight scene with Tybalt. Cuthbertson and Bonelli have a notable chemistry in their partnership and this was shown to great effect from the moment that Romeo first catches sight of Juliet in the ball whereupon his flirtations with Rosaline (a stately Christina Arestis) are immediately consigned to the bin.

This is where the Royal Ballet is so world-class. The greatest strength across the company is being able to sell such a complex story through the universality of exceptional characterisations; and this skill runs from the soloists to the uncredited artists and actors playing the Veronese townsfolk (each one of whom seems to have his or her own complete back story). As perhaps the prime example, Laura Morera’s harlot is a masterpiece of bold promiscuity. She portrays a woman who is clearly without fear or a life expectancy much beyond the next day. She cares nothing for her slatternly reputation although she holds tender feelings for Romeo. Romany Pajdak and Laura McCulloch also have boisterous fun as the additional street whores (although they are far from being “fallen women”).

Gary Avis gives an impressively choleric, swaggering interpretation of the Capulet bad boy, Tybalt, and Ricardo Cervera is a fine foil as the free-spirited, witty Mercutio. I worried that Chris Saunders was perhaps a little too benign as Lord Capulet but that thought changed when he started throwing Juliet about! A final reference is to Bennet Gartside’s commanding cameo as Prince Escalus. When he arrives to break up the brawl at the end of scene I, the dramatic sweeping aside of his arms to end the fighting is done with such authority that a job in traffic control on a modern Italian street awaits if the need ever arises! I rather fancy he would look the part in a white helmet and gloves.

The designs by the late Nico Georgiadis are timeless, still appearing modern and possessing the capacity for great impact even after half-a-century; and Prokofiev’s astounding score was given a vibrant rendition by the Royal Opera House Orchestra under Barry Wordsworth. I could swear that I heard new musical accents and even phrases for the first time, even after listening to hundreds of live performances. But I think that is the great strength in the immense complex diversity of Prokofiev’s music. It will seem fresh and new in the hands of each great conductor.

It’s really not surprising that Romeo & Juliet is such a mainstay of the company’s repertoire when every aspect of its performance polishes up with such bright sparkle. In this case, the extra gloss came with a deeply convincing portrait of Juliet in this very welcome return by a special ballerina who has been sorely missed.

Romeo and Juliet in rep until 7 December 2013

Photos: Bill Cooper, courtesy ROH

Graham Watts writes for, Dance Tabs, Dancing Times 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.

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