Watching Northern Ballet dance Jean-Christophe Maillot's Romeo and Juliet is like setting fresh eyes on an old case. Bare designs and slick white screens set the stage for a clean, crisp and modern retelling of the Shakespeare-Prokofiev masterpiece, and the production is a reinvigorating take on the tragic love story. Juliet, played by Abigail Prudames, is fiery and Romeo, interpreted by Sean Bates, is charming. The two are young and do an excellent job, refreshingly childlike in their portryal of the lovers. Their love for one another comes through in the sensual duets they share throughout the performance. The nurse, danced by Victoria Sibson, was an audience favourite. From the moment she takes the stage, her dynamite dancing and her facial expressions offer the audience comical relief. Her character is witty, Maillot’s choreography amusing and her interpretation of the role superb. Maillot’s tongue and cheek choreography leaves little to the imagination at times, as he interjects breast grabbing, hip thrusting, and body groping into the dance.

Northern Ballet dancers in Jean-Christophe Maillot's <i>Romeo and Juliet</i> © Andy Ross
Northern Ballet dancers in Jean-Christophe Maillot's Romeo and Juliet
© Andy Ross

The Lyceum is an incredibly elegant theatre but the stage is rather small and this, at times, works against the production, perhaps more so in the larger ensemble scenes. However, the company navigates this tighter squeeze wonderfully. Even in the sizeable dance scenes, which often see the men leaping across the stage or duets with high lifts and large turns, sequences were not compromised. Where the company did struggle a bit was with the costuming. Jerome Kaplan’s designs do not enhance the dancing; rather, they impede a lot of the movement. At times dancers were caught in their capes or tangled in the robes; which was distracting and unfortunate. The colour palette is a fresh take on the romantic story; not a deep rich red tone in site, only sleek white, black and a touch of golden auburn colouring.

The linear choreography placed a lot of emphasis on keeping the arms straight and in making right angles, especially in the choreography for Friar Lawrence, who makes a number of appearances in all three acts – even when his character is not necessarily relevant to the storyline. Maillot's characterisation of Friar Lawrence is peculiar and at times a bit distracting. The overemotional head holds and fist clenches are somewhat overused and create a confusing relationship between him and the rest of the dancers. Hand and wrist gestures were used to signify love and during the final fight scene between the Montague and Capulet clans, the freezed frame and the movements sequence happened in cleverly rendered slow motion.

Maillot's interpretation and choreographic choices alter the story (a little) and whilst his artistic license is unique, I wonder whether changing, if not fundamental at least symbolic elements of the tragedy, is really necessary. Rather than a potion, Juliet strangles herself with a scarf and Romeo bashes his head over an imagined tomb. The mix of old and new and the functional set do enhance Maillot’s work, and go hand in hand with his choreographic choices. Maillot rejects the traditional Renaissance period norms and offers audiences a quirky, and modern interpretation. The lyrical and imaginative fight scenes as well as the poetic loving duets set the dramatic tone of the work (sometimes it even veers into the melodramatic), and refresh the shakespearean tale. This version is powerful and Northern Ballet perform it very well but I am not entirely convinced by this production.