Romeo and Juliet: ROH Live

Kenneth MacMillan’s iconic version of Romeo and Juliet turns 50 this year, and what better way for the Royal Ballet to celebrate than by live screening its production straight from the Royal Opera House? And as if one special occasion wasn’t enough, 22nd September also happened to be my 5th anniversary with my boyfriend. So of course I dragged him along to watch it.

(I’m not going to bother detailing the plot of Shakespeare’s most famous work – let’s just assume you’ve all read it/seen at least one version/studied it under duress at school.)

MacMillan’s fair Verona is realised with a simple set, a large colonnaded structure with a flight of steps leading down to the stage. This serves as marketplace, ballroom and Juliet’s balcony; backdrops, beds and giant (terrifying) tombstone angels are brought in where necessary. This relative simplicity is embellished with fabulous Tudor costumes, all trailing skirts and billowing sleeves. There must be more fabric in this ballet than in the rest of the RB season combined.

What really brings this production alive for the screen is Ross MacGibbon’s direction. Frequent close ups of both lead characters and corps de ballet members heighten the emotion of key scenes – such as the street brawls or Romeo and Juliet’s first meeting – and provoke empathy from the audience. They also reveal the extent of the Royal Ballet’s acting skills. When Juliet’s friends and family find her ‘dead’ in Act III, Lady Capulet (Elizabeth McGorian)’s heartbroken reaction genuinely brought tears to my eyes.

One of the stand out performances in this production is from Gary Avis as Tybalt. The Capulet baddie is – I would imagine – a really fun role for a male dancer to get stuck into, and the nuances in Avis’ performance show that he’s done just that. When forced to shake hands with Romeo in reconciliation, he wipes his hand afterwards in disgust; every glance towards a Montague drips with disdain, and yet after he has killed Mercutio, he attempts to reach out in apology. The sword fighting from Avis and the other main male dancers is surprisingly visceral; usually these sequences look highly choreographed, but the athleticism and aggression displayed on this occasion makes it look quite real.

Photo by Alice Pennefather for Royal Opera House
Photo by Alice Pennefather for Royal Opera House

So I’ve gotten through quite a few paragraphs of this review without talking about the eponymous lovers… Steven McRae’s incredible athleticism (and beautiful face/body) make him ideally suited to Romeo, which is an incredibly demanding role. Sarah Lamb is a gorgeous, radiant ballerina, but she isn’t as expressive in this role as Lauren Cuthbertson. Though her performance in Act III is knockout – she embodies Juliet’s fierce determination, desperation and numb acceptance of her fate more easily than her shy girlishness.

Together, Lamb and McRae have a brilliant partnership. As with Manon, the pas de deux convey very different stages in Romeo and Juliet’s relationship: the spark-filled, innocent first encounter, the passionate balcony scene, the despairing parting at dawn and the sequence at Juliet’s tomb. Certain steps and lifts are repeated across the pas de deux, a feature that becomes particularly poignant in the final act when Romeo attempts to recreate them in his ‘dance’ with Juliet’s lifeless body. (Kenneth MacMillan clearly had a thing about women being thrown about like rag dolls.)

All in all, this was another successful screening of a fantastic Royal Ballet production – judging from the abundance of enthusiastic #ROHRomeo tweets, the ROH Live scheme is going from strength to strength. And speaking of Twitter, the cherry on my evening was being included in the tweets shown onscreen in the interval. Very exciting.

(And just in case anyone was wondering, my boyfriend’s verdict on Romeo and Juliet was… ‘slightly below tolerable.’ I tried, but there’s just no converting some people.)

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