Rudolf Nureyev’s production of Romeo and Juliet erupts with life, giving the dancers of English National Ballet the opportunity to show off spectacular dancing and dramatic content, as well as coping with his highly technical, yet deceivingly simple looking, steps. Each individual dancer has his/her own role to portray and weave into the tapestry of the tragedy unfolding beneath Ezio Frigerio’s splendid Renaissance sets and the golden sun lighting by Tharon Musser. The pace is unrelenting and the company members react naturally and convincingly to events – one moment merry-making, the next avoiding the rapiers of the sparring families. Emotion pours from every corner of the often overflowing stage, and while the Royal Festival Hall is not an ideal location for such a full production, (just under three hours long), the raised seats give unobstructed viewing.

Erina Takahashi (Juliet) and Isaac Hernandez (Romeo) in Romeo and Juliet
© Laurent Liotardo | English National Ballet

Rudolf Nureyev choreographed his version of the Shakespearian tale in 1977 for London Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet), later restaging it for La Scala Ballet (1980)and then Paris Opéra Ballet in 1984, (where one of the Juliets was the very young Sylvie Guillem). Nureyev’s production stays close to Shakespeare’s original text and is very earthy, often coarse, depicting real life with real characters in those plague-ridden times. There is strong contrast between the Capulets’ formal glittering ball for Juliet’s coming-out, where the emotions of the nobility in opulent ruby red brocades are stifled in stiff formal dancing, and the scenes in the market square where life is constantly interrupted by the brutish behaviour and frenzied fighting of the Capulets and Montagues. Raunchy women lead on leering louts with their skirt lifting and rude gestures, and young bravados swing punches at each other or make grabs for any girl’s breasts.

Erina Takahashi (Juliet) in Romeo and Juliet
© Laurent Liotardo | English National Ballet

The fighting is raw and aggressive, corroborating the tinder dry enmity waiting to explode at any moment between the two families. The duelling in ENB’s production is spectacular – it could hardly have been bettered in a dramatic theatre. All credit goes to the young men who must have practised hard to perfect their skills, especially Bufalá Fernando, as a Puckish Mercutio and James Streeter’s impetuous Tybalt who hurls himself through the air and enjoys twirling his rapiers at breakneck speed. In this production Mercutio is a friend of both the Montagues and Capulets, but he plays one too many pranks on Tybalt which ends up in a duel, one of the best ever staged. The two of them fly at each other in lightning fast, risk-taking bravura, sending bystanders scuttling for safety and audience members holding their breath in amazement. Tybalt throws his dagger and mortally wounds Mercutio, unseen by the crowd. So the latter’s ‘injured’ actions are considered by them another of his comic mimes and his death brings absolute shock to them all. Bufalá nearly stole the show with his nonchalant impudence, his fantastic dancing skills and his open-faced, look-at-me activities.

Fernando Bufala (Mercutio) in Romeo and Juliet
© Laurent Liotardo

But it was Isaac Hernández as Romeo who ticked all the boxes for me. The Mexican born principal has an angelic face framed with dark curls and a winning smile, and a long, lean body with agile and flexible limbs. Soft as a feather duvet in his landings, he epitomises the star-cross'd lover, mooning first about Rosaline, then falling immediately for the perky young Juliet. He has a lovely accurate but gentle technique and he acts pretty well too, although he could have been a bit more ardent with Juliet. In this role, Erina Takahashi makes a charming, graceful, yet determined young heroine though she is often short-changed when it comes to being in the spotlight. Her first scene is now is a game of tag with her friends (while her Nurse is in a back room romping with a young man); her dagger/sleeping draught decision is shared with the ghosts of Tybalt and Mercutio, then as she drinks the draught, there is a vision of her parents and Nurse finding her; her wedding night sees her not in bed with Romeo, but with the figure of death encompassing her with his black cloak. However, Lady Capulet’s highly dramatic moment of mourning over Tybalt’s body is now given to Juliet. Nureyev choreographed some fiendishly challenging steps for the young lovers, which at times get so busy that the lyrical input is lost, but happily, the couple managed well and impressed. (Throughout the ballet, I, like many others, was vividly reminded of seeing Nureyev dance the role himself oh so many years ago. His presence, even when standing still, was magnetic.)

Adding to the enjoyment of the evening were Jane Haworth as Lady Capulet – who obviously had something going with Tybalt – James Forbat, who made a jolly Benvolio, Emilio Pavan who had the hapless role of Paris, the man who never gets the girl, and Laura Hussey who made a spirited and bawdy Nurse. And the English National Ballet Philharmonic who gave a rousing performance of Prokofiev’s score under the baton of Gavin Sutherland.