Romeo and Juliet, On Motifs of Shakespeare

Music by Sergei Prokofiev, choreography by Mark Morris
Mark Morris Dance Group, music performed by the London Symphony Orchestra
Barbican Theatre

Production photo

This is not the score or the scenario familiar from other versions such as that by Kenneth Macmillan but uses the score as originally written by Prokofiev to a scenario by himself and Sergey Radlov that provides it with a happy ending and love triumphing. It is a tightened up version of the story: much less in the town square to begin with, no pre-ball scene for Romeo's friends, no long balcony scene (Romeo goes back into the ballroom to meet Juliet who seems to be expecting him), no fleeing from Verona, missed messages or poison for Romeo - and no tomb!

It looks lovely. Allen Moyer's set surrounds a tiled floor with pale wooden panelling, the side panels swinging round to form wing entrances for some moments; for the market square there are small wooden models of houses and churches placed around the stage; for Friar Lawrence's cell he brings on a rostrum and desk that seems inspired by Antonello's painting of St Jerome and for the bedrooms scene a simple raised bed with a swathe of scarlet sheet providing a splash of colour across it. It is all very simple, throwing the dancers into prominence, and they are in costumes, by Martin Pakledinaz, in a range of strong autumn colours - browns, russets, ochres, greens, blues, yellows, greys, orange, mauve and black that give place to silver-decorated richness for the ball. It is early renaissance in feel without being strictly period: indeed Romeo wears what look more like jeans with a codpiece than tights and Juliet is virginal in white.

With this palette Morris creates some beautiful stage pictures that are never set pieces but always in motion. He captures the youth and vitality this story is about and is as interested in all his characters as in the title pair. Shawn Gannon's Capulet is clearly a very loving father, upset though he may be when an eagerly wooing Paris (Brandon McDonald) is not favoured. Tybalt, though not so good natured, is as lively as Mercutio and both are travestie performances - by Julie Worden and Amber Darragh. There is a great sense of rank and hierarchy when Joe Bowie's black-gowned Prince Escalus is present - and it is noticeable how effective both he and other members of the cast (especially John Heginbotham's Friar and the Capulets) are in their mime. This is a dance work where you don't need the scenario in the programme: you always know what is going on.

Free of the requirements to match Shakespeare's text the Nurse (Lauren Grant) is young, petite and perky. When Romeo's gang are teasing her and she gives Romeo her message from Juliet communication is precise and you know exactly what it says. Morris pairs her with her servant Peter (Samuel Black) and gives them some witty steps together.

The choreography doesn't go in for big set pieces and show stoppers. It makes the story flow and captures the exuberance of the young. From the beginning it seems much more demotic that earlier ballet treatments - the feuding sides give each other the finger more like West Side Story than Royal Opera and there is a youthful vitality that looks back to Zefferelli's treatment of the play decades ago. Was that the first time, with Judi Dench and John Stride, that the palm-to-palm gesture of the lovers was established, or is it an earlier tradition? Morris makes much use of it for his young couple. He makes Romeo a wallflower at the ball, watching this new girl with amazement until you realise that at last she has seen him.

There is no point in comparing these dancers to Ulanova, Fonteyn or Seymour and their partners: this is a different kind of dance, but, like Macmillan, Morris give Juliet a delightful dance to show just how taken she is with this new boy and on the opening night Juliet, Rita Donahue, danced it beautifully. She is quite a big girl compared to her Romeo, David Leventhal, which makes him seem particularly, touchingly adolescent. There is an innocence about their naked bodies in the bedroom scene that contrasts with the significance of the scarlet sheet but there is little real passion in either the plot or their duets. These lovers do not dominate the piece. While we happily watching the citizens parade around the market place we feel no urgent need to know what is happening to them. Perhaps that is the problem of removing the tragic element which is at the heart of Shakespeare's version. The point of the whole thing is gone and we are left with Mills and Boon and carnival? No that's unfair - I did enjoy watching these spirited dancers and the choreography does give a lot of pleasure, it just does not have that added dimension.

When, having been prevented from killing himself by Friar Lawrence, Romeo rouses the drugged Juliet they slink off through a window while everyone else comes in, pairs off and declares a happy ending. We then have a brief orchestral passage with the front cloth down before it rises on a set changed to blue star-studded walls for a 'happy-aver-after' pas de deux. I think that's a bit of a cop-out, but that's what Prokofiev presumably intended. But to make it work this would have to been a really stunning passage and it isn't. Nor does it take any risks; they just float on cloud nine. A glimpse of how they cope with married life - now that might have been a post-script worth the hiatus.

Until 9th November then touring internationally

Reviewer: Howard Loxton