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Romeo and Juliet

Choreography by Jean-Christophe Maillot, music by Serge Prokofiev
Northern Ballet
Lyceum Sheffield

Martha Leebolt as Juliet and Giuliano Contadina as Romeo Credit: Andy Ross

Northern Ballet’s superb Romeo and Juliet, originally choreographed by Jean-Christophe Maillot of Les Ballets de Monte Carlo and set to the thrillingly dynamic and poignant music of Serge Prokofiev, is currently delighting audiences on a national tour.

There are significant differences between Shakespeare’s play and Maillot’s interpretation.

Friar Lawrence, chillingly performed by Mlindi Kulashe, is a dominant presence throughout, an observer and manipulator, a figure of fate, who anticipates with horror the unfolding of the tragedy which he is partially responsible for but can do nothing to avert.

Maillot’s interpretation, revived in this production by Omar Gordon and Daniel de Andrade, places emphasis on action that can be physicalised, notably the vigorous scenes of street confrontation and the Capulets’ ball, the tender encounters between the lovers and moments of overwhelming grief. Consequently, two acts pass before the fatal stabbings of Mercutio and Tybalt and the action of the final act procedes rapidly to encompass and simplify the complexities of Shakespeare’s tragic ending.

Act I is largely celebratory. The young dancers who represent the Montague and Capulet clans are innocent, joyful and fun-loving. Rosaline (Abigail Prudales) as Romeo’s previous beloved is part of the crowd and gives a robust performance which contrasts effectively with Juliet’s delicate winsomeness when we meet her.

Beautiful stage patterns are created as the Montagues in black and the Capulets in white advance and retreat to flirt or engage in relatively lighthearted confrontation. Sub-groups, notably Matthew Koon as Mercutio and Sean Bates as Benvolio, synchronise their movement to suggest insult, but the gestures they use are recognisable from street confrontations today. The style of the choreography combines formal elements with movement drawn from Contemporary Dance.

Our first encounter with Juliet (Martha Leebolt), a recognisable adolescent delighting in her pubescent breasts, reveals a young girl on the cusp of maturity, sensitive, yearning for experience and full of joie de vivre. Pippa Moore gives a well characterised and impressive performance as the Nurse, which suggests she finds her responsibility for Juliet quite onerous and explores the comic potential of the role.

Romeo (Giuliano Contadini) encounters Juliet at the ball and meets her later in the "balcony scene". The choreography suggests the slow and delicate coming together of the two. The individual performances are compelling and the use of the stage space reinforces the innocence and tentativeness of the participants in their first experience of love.

In the second act, the plot develops and becomes much more serious. A street puppet show anticipates the slide into tragedy. Romeo marries Juliet at Friar Lawrence’s cell and the simmering hatred of Tybalt explodes into violent action. The fight with Mercutio takes on symbolic significance when the Tybalt puppet is also used in the action. Romeo retaliates and Tybalt dies.

At the beginning of the final act, Lucia Solari as Lady Capulet, who has been aristocratically glacial in earlier appearances, gives a passionate performance of grief, while Juliet is incapable of reconciling the loss of her cousin to her love for Romeo and withdraws into herself. Reconciliation is gradually achieved when Romeo appears in a scene rich in conflicting emotions, performed with great delicacy by the two protagonists. The action then moves rapidly to the inevitable tragic conclusion.

Ernest Pignon-Ernest’s simple, white set, occasionally draped in black, is a work of art in itself and curved, free-standing flats are moved effortlessly to create scene changes. The puppet show is exciting and theatrically effective. Costumes designed by Jerome Kaplan and supplied by Les Ballets de Monte Carlo assert the masculinity of the male performers and enhance women’s performances (particularly Juliet’s) in scenes of high emotion.

The performances from the whole cast are of such a high quality as to appear effortless. Dancers seem weightless when they are lifted and the fluidity of movement, particularly by the principals, belies the technical skill, training, rehearsal and artistry that achieves this effect. Particularly impressive are "freeze frame" moments at the beginning of some scenes when dancers hold a difficult position for several seconds before coming back to life.

Northern Ballet’s work is always a delight. In this performance, they have excelled themselves.

Reviewer: Velda Harris