Death lurks around every corner in Rudolf Nureyev’s Romeo and Juliet, created for English National Ballet (then named London Festival Ballet) back in 1977 and energetically performed here. Soon after the parchment frontcloth rises, three fates throw dice and a cart trundles past carrying plague victims. A beggar keels over within seconds of Romeo having given him a coin. Verona’s high mortality rate is inflated by the bitter feud between the Montagues and the Capulets. Ezio Frigerio’s costumes and umber sets plunge us straight into Renaissance Italy, complete with athletic flag throwers straight out of Siena’s “Palio”.

The Act I street brawl © Bill Cooper
The Act I street brawl
© Bill Cooper

There’s a cinematic scope to Nureyev’s staging and it’s his storytelling which impresses me more than his choreography. He aligns himself even more closely to Shakespeare’s text than Sergei Prokofiev and Leonid Lavrosky did in their original ballet libretto. Indeed, you can almost hear the Bard’s lines in Nureyev's choreography. Juliet’s “And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss” is reflected in much touching of hands towards the end of the Balcony Scene, almost a slow-motion re-enactment of the clapping game she had earlier played with her cousin, Tybalt. At the end of Act II, a freeze frame on the rest of the cast isolates Juliet's horror at seeing the man she has secretly married kill her cousin. A masked figure clambers on top of Juliet in bed in Act III; “I’ll go to my wedding-bed; And death not Romeo, take my maidenhead” taken too literally.

Nureyev helpfully fills in gaps in the ballet’s plot. When Friar Laurence gives Juliet a potion to give her the appearance of death, a split-screen shows us exactly his intended happy outcome. Nureyev also adds scenes where Friar John is murdered on his way to deliver details of Laurence’s plan to Romeo, who instead receives the devastating (false) news from Benvolio of Juliet’s death. The clarity of storytelling is superb.

Isaac Hernández (Romeo) © Bill Cooper
Isaac Hernández (Romeo)
© Bill Cooper

In contrast, the choreography can be fussy, allowing Isaac Hernández’s Romeo limited scope to shine and show his power. Hernández displayed a touching innocence, particularly when he stood intoxicated for what seemed like minutes, completely unaware of Tybalt’s posturing, after Romeo’s first encounter with Juliet. With graceful port de bras, Erina Takahashi’s doe-eyed Juliet excelled as the vivacious girl of Act I, but didn’t quite make the emotional impact required later on. However, I loved the moment when, contemplating suicide, she held the dagger by the blade and saw – in the handle – the cross, giving her the idea to turn to Friar Laurence for help. The success of the Balcony Scene was limited by busy choreography and some less then tidy lifts, while the Bedroom pas de deux, too much of which takes place on the bed or on the floor, didn’t soar ecstatically. I didn’t quite believe in a passionate relationship between Hernández and Takahashi, but was moved by their sincerity.

Other characters are fleshed out and were vividly portrayed. Tamarin Stott’s Nurse was no elderly prude, sneakily enjoying a bit of how’s-your-father while Juliet and her friends played games. Nureyev brings Romeo’s pals to the fore. Fernando Bufalá’s Mercutio was an affable joker, while James Forbat’s Benvolio was excellent in the dramatic scene where he tells Romeo of Juliet’s death. James Streeter's Tybalt, with impressive simultaneous twirling of two swords, was more the dashing Capulet hero than a moustache-twirling villain. Nureyev brings Tybalt and Mercutio back from the dead for a ghostly pas de trois as Juliet is caught between suicide (the dagger) or staying alive (the potion).

The Dance of the Knights © Bill Cooper
The Dance of the Knights
© Bill Cooper

ENB’s corps portrayed a bustling, brawling Veronese marketplace, while the Dance of the Knights was properly imposing, all thrusting lunges and arrogant airs. Under Gavin Sutherland’s experienced baton, the English National Ballet Philharmonic gave a similarly thrusting account of Prokofiev’s score, gloriously resounding through the theatre thanks to the Mayflower’s completely uncovered pit.

As Juliet sinks to her death, in Romeo’s arms, both families gather (as in Shakespeare) united in grief. It was a touching ending, but one – like the performance – lacking the last ounce of tragedy. 

***11