Krzysztof Pastor’s Romeo and Juliet is a bit like a plate of lovely raw oysters: delectable for some, unpalatable for others. Prokofiev's score is reordered, the choreography is contemporary, characters are missing, and each of the three main scenes is set during a different 20th-century time period, thus removing the essential timeframe which adds to the desperation of the two teenagers. Yet, this work is also a truly original and engagingly fresh take on the classic ballet, the historical timeline a macrocosmic metaphor for the universality of passion and plight; the choreography is creative and extremely musical, reflecting intricacies in the difficult score, and the utilization of period films folding gently into sets is a very skillful blending of film and 3D. It gives far more scope to the secondary characters and the corps de ballet than other versions, solving a traditional problem with most productions of this work. Indeed, the choreography for the corps de ballet and secondary characters is often more interesting than that for the central couple. This works, as the Polish National Ballet is in excellent shape, showing a fantastic level of artistic and technical depth from all dancers.

Patryk Walczak (Romeo) and Yuka Ebihara (Juliet)
© Marta Wódz

Act 1, with a beautifully Brutalist backdrop, gives us the fully fledged characters of Tybalt (Maksim Woitiul) and Lady Capulet (Ana Kipshidze), making it entirely obvious from the start that the two have more than a traditional aunt/nephew relationship. It also sets the basis for Tybalt’s antipathy towards Dawid Trzensimiech’s charming metrosexual Mercutio. The young, brilliantly talented Patryk Walczak is Romeo to the full hilt, with a sensitivity and vulnerability that is ideal for the role. Yuka Ebihara’s beautiful Juliet conveys a more mature, but no less passionate, presence. She first appears, in a little white tunic, at the dénouement of the first scene, walking through the destruction like a white light, a leitmotif that repeats later. There is no nurse in this production, and Juliet is very much a proper upper class young lady of the 1930s, who is cherished but not cossetted – she goes out into the street by herself and needs no intermediary for her messages. We see her Juliet enjoy a lighter, modern relationship with Lady Capulet, and she has two good friends of her own age (Milia Stachurska and Mai Kageyama), both of whom are given lovely scope of their own technical skills, as is Kipshidze herself. One difficulty of more traditional versions of this ballet is the lack of technical challenge for any of the women not dancing Juliet: Pastor deftly solves this problem.

Yuka Ebihara (Juliet) and Patryk Walczak (Romeo)
© Marta Wódz

The costumes for the Ballroom Scene are absolutely faithful to the 1930s, an Art Deco vision of glamorous couples swirling in black and white. The Dance of the Knights involves no pillows, swords, medieval gestures or masks (of any kind!); instead serving as a very masculine expression of the rise of Fascism, which is interesting and powerful, until marred by a sequence of jarringly unattractive positions with flexed feet that belied the overall look of the scene. Ebihara and Walczak’s two Act 1 pas de deux are modern in both style and characterization... flipping the usual gender roles, here Romeo appears to be falling in love for the first time, but Juliet, while no less enamored, is at least familiar with the concept. The contemporary pas de deux, throughout, are weaknesses; the lack of soaring, complex lifts, multiple turns and intimate, entwined moments give each duet a feeling of anticlimax for those who expect these moments to be highlights.

Yuka Ebihara (Juliet)
© Marta Wódz

Act 2 takes place first in the 1950s, then switches to the 1990s for the crypt scene. The town scene is unusual but, like the rest of the production, is both organic and modern. There is no sword fight, and Tybalt instead stabs Mercutio in the back with a small dagger; the same weapon Romeo uses to kill him. Mercutio’s death is uncharacteristically, but realistically, quick. Lady Capulet’s usual histrionics are at full tilt, but include the intriguing layer of showing Lord Capulet (Marco Esposito) to be aware of his wife’s true feelings for Tybalt. These subtleties give an additional depth and universality to the extent of the tortured familial relationships. The bedroom pas de deux is more moving than the preceding duets – Ebihara and Walczak are lovely – but it still lacks opportunity for true choreographic connection. Friar Lawrence (Carlos Martin Perez) presents Ebihara with the potion, taken quickly, virtually eliminating the moving usual sequence.

The crypt scene is exceptionally stark and despairing; the closing procession, with the Capulets and Montagues carrying away the bodies of their deceased children in opposite directions, is heartbreakingly realistic. Deaths of despair provide escape only for the dying. The living continue to make the same mistakes. Perhaps that is the ultimate point.

This performance was reviewed from OperaVision's video stream