It was 50 years ago that Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn stood in front of the red velvet, ‘ER II’ embroidered curtains of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden and took 43 bows after the première of Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet. The first night proved a huge success for this masterpiece of action, colour and drama and over the succeeding years, the ballet has become one of the most popular productions, not just in The Royal Ballet’s repertoire but worldwide. And there are few ballerinas who, when asked to name their dream role, don’t respond quickly, “Juliet”.

Sarah Lamb (Juliet) and Steven McRae (Romeo) © Alice Pennefather | ROH
Sarah Lamb (Juliet) and Steven McRae (Romeo)
© Alice Pennefather | ROH
Over the past century the ballet has been tweaked here and there but the overall impact remains the same. Together with Prokofiev’s epic score which ‘speaks’ the language of Shakespeare’s play, MacMillan has packed his choreography with non-stop action, swashbuckling sword fights, high spirited corps work, virtuoso dancing from the main characters and the silkiest of pas de deux for the two star-cross'd lovers. But above all, he demanded that each and every dancer react to the challenging and constantly developing drama, and on this September’s opening night the corps could have been more convincing. While they all danced with great gusto and enthusiasm, their outward emotions seemed very much like ‘acting by numbers’ – “now look jolly, now afraid, be disgusted by the harlots’ behaviour, run left, now right... your arm goes up now, then yours” etc. Peering through binoculars showed that they were all very young and their expressions did not come over as being truly felt. Hopefully as the season progresses with 17 more performances of the ballet, things will become more natural.

Like policemen, the harlots too seemed to have become younger – and somewhat tidier. Their fuzzy hair was not as wild, and the three of them – Itziar Mendizabal, Olivia Cowley and Helen Crawford – sprang like wild cats across the stage, exciting the male townsfolk especially when, far too often, they lewdly lifted their skirts and spread their legs wide to show off their ‘wares’.

The role of Paris was performed by Ryoichi Hirano who made an elegant partner, gently lifting Juliet (Sarah Lamb) and carefully placing her in their ballroom pas de deux, showing her off to best effect. Romeo’s two pals, Mercutio (Alexander Campbell) and Benvolio (Tristan Dyer), blazed across the stage having fun together as the wild boys of Verona, keeping their audiences on stage (and off) amused with their antics. Campbell made a cheeky-faced, bubbly Mercutio, light-footed and completely fearless, ready to take on any encounter with a Capulet. He showed off tidy footwork in his speedy dancing.

Gary Avis (Tybalt) and Alexander Campbell (Mercutio) © Alice Pennefather | ROH
Gary Avis (Tybalt) and Alexander Campbell (Mercutio)
© Alice Pennefather | ROH
Following his final fight with Tybalt (Gary Avis who always guarantees a fine performance) which ends with the fatal stab in the back, his moments of dying, which too often can be overlong and sometimes comic, were done with true pathos, as was Tybalt’s death a few minutes later.

Another notable small cameo role was performed by Marcelino Sambé in the Mandolin Dance. A quicksilver turner, a high leaper with clean landings teamed with natural exuberance, made his short appearance memorable.

And so to the leading couple, Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae, whose roles demand much of them – from the continuously changing dramatic content of the ballet to all the beautiful but exhausting dancing involved. Lamb is a dainty and perfectly proportioned ballerina with porcelain-doll like features – pale luminous skin, large blue eyes and blonde hair. She looks deceptively fragile, but here as Juliet, she exudes strength and determination throughout.

Sarah Lamb (Juliet) © Johan Persson | ROH
Sarah Lamb (Juliet)
© Johan Persson | ROH

The role requires Lamb to change from a doll-loving 13 year old who receives an unexpected proposal from a future husband, to the catalyst of events that fuel her every action up to the tragic events that lead to her and Romeo’s deaths. She quickly discovers a burgeoning passion within her – there is no shyness in her meeting with Romeo in the garden when she places his hand on her heart, and during the wedding ceremony, where she kept her eyes open in prayer, peeking at him. Lamb is very musical and her dancing offers thistledown soft leaping, textbook-perfect beautiful lines and exacting placement. But occasionally, it would be good to see her take a risk and be spontaneous.

Steven McRae (Romeo) © Johan Persson | ROH
Steven McRae (Romeo)
© Johan Persson | ROH
Lamb’s Romeo was the red-headed, spritely Steven McRae who contrasted well with the heroine’s character. Unlike Juliet, who has lived a sheltered life, Romeo is obviously a more experienced flirt as was seen in his relationship with the harlots, and McRae makes the perfect ‘local lad’ with his impetuosity and charm. There is a big emotional change of person needed when he comes face to face with the virginal Juliet, and he suddenly has to change gear and leave his past. As a technician, McRae can’t be faulted – he must have some of the fastest turns on stage today – and he literally flies through the air like Puck with enviable ease. MacMillan has peppered the ballet with choreography that is often off-balance and his wonderfully lyrical pas de deux are long, demanding much lifting. But McRae showed no effort in his partnering, and he and Lamb performed beautifully together. Again my impression was of outward emotion from them both, rather than showing feelings spontaneously bubbling up and exploding from inside.

The loudest clapping and cheering was rightly given to the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, whose playing under conductor Koen Kessels was rich in tone and expression.