We aren’t family
Rudolf Nureyev’s Romeo and Juliet is forty years old now, which means it’s lasted more than twice Juliet’s life span. It’s English National Ballet’s very own production, the legendary Russian having created it at the behest of Dame Beryl Grey for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977 (although our dear monarch clearly had better things to do than actually watch it – she sent her sister to the premiere instead).
While Ezio Frigerio’s traditional designs are clean and unfussy (with some stunning backcloths), Nureyev’s choreography is as busy as it comes. This Romeo and Juliet must have one of the highest steps per minute count of any ballet in the history of the art-form. At first this works very much to its advantage; the high tempo captures the energy of the enthusiastically warring families and also of the butterflies-stirring moments of first love.
Then comes the crucial ‘balcony pas de deux’ (or here, the ‘short flight of steps pas de deux’) and where you want the young lovers to communicate the depth of their passion through tender, yearning expressions that infect their entire bodies, instead you have faster and faster and relatively superficial balletic gestures. It’s a little disappointing to be honest but the rest of the ballet has so many things to recommend it that it almost seems churlish to point it out.
The guttural squabbling of the Montague and Capulet families are very effectively realised with a series of rude gestures and massive unruly brawls in which the women get as involved as the menfolk. The principal characters are given a great deal of humanity – Tybalt isn’t just a rudderless psychopath, for example, but a chap who’s affectionately close to, and highly protective of, his cousin Juliet. Likewise, Mercutio (who was brilliantly performed by Fernando Bufalá) is funny but bloody annoying and although my sympathies were with James Streeter’s manic Tybalt by the time of their confrontation, the way everyone takes the piss out of him when he’s dying is heartbreaking. Even the nurse has another, rather naughty, life going on.
Crucially, Juliet is given a lot of emotional turmoil to deal with. For her, the decision to run away with Romeo is not as simple as is usually made out in other productions; she agonises over whether suicide would actually be the best option after discovering it was Romeo who killed her beloved cousin. Funnily enough, the character we learn least about is Romeo himself; he just seems to be a romantic dreamer and it’s pretty much left at that.
To that end, Isaac Hernández played him very well. All floppy hair and doe-eyed intensity, Hernández was convincing as the naïve youth, and his classical technique and stamina was superb. Erina Takahashi was outstanding as Juliet. An attractive dancer with quick, neat steps, she caught her character’s progression from young girl to womanhood perfectly and was totally in tune with her confusion regarding family duty and personal desire. It was desperately sad to see her plans of escape unravel in such devastatingly cruel twists of fate.
Despite some unnecessary symbolism crowbarred in (the figure of death hovering behind Juliet while she contemplates suicide, for instance) and an overly-long build up to getting to the tomb (how many dances does Paris have to do before he opens the bloody curtain to find Juliet dead?), this is an intelligent and very enjoyable production. It was also excellently danced by English National Ballet who were wonderfully accompanied by their orchestra.
Nureyev’s Romeo and Juliet has finished at London’s Southbank for this season but it re-appears at the Bristol Hippodrome from 21 November 2017. Check the English National Ballet website for dates and tickets.