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Bolshoi Ballet

'Romeo and Juliet'

Take no prisoners

by Lyndsey Winship

July 26, 2004
The Royal Opera House, London

Ballet-goers are sometimes accused of being stuck in their ways. The old classics ("Swan Lake" et al) pack theatres while more modern, directional works struggle to fill seats. A clever way to get around this is to take an old story and teach it some new tricks. The Bolshoi, grand jetéing into the 21st century, chose theatre director Declan Donnellan to overhaul "Romeo and Juliet". In collaboration with choreographer Radu Poklitaru, Donnellan has stripped the work of some of its characters, its sentimentality, even of its ballet. And in place has created a diverting but not entirely satisfying piece of theatre.

The look is a glamorous minimalism, the set dressed only with a wash of sepia lights, and the cast first in shades of grey, then black, via some lovely muted satin ballgowns.

For Donnellan, the challenge of the project lay in storytelling without a script; and in lieu of words, Prokofiev’s score fills the void – sliced to fit this 90 minute version. Even in edited form, Prokofiev’s lush instrumentation provides colour and depth and at times, as much rhythmic verve as Bernstein. It’s a shame the choreography doesn’t quite live up.

Maria Alexandrova as Juliet, and Denis Savin, her star-cross’d lover, both appear appropriately adolescent. She is gangly and loose-limbed while he is eager and puppyish, both at odds with the adult world around them.

When their eyes first meet at the Capulet ball, silence cuts into the score as the couple are propelled into each other’s awkward clutches. It’s less the fizzing excitement of new romance, more a dutiful acceptance of their fate. Unfortunately, Poklitaru just doesn’t give them anything interesting to do. It’s physical theatre minus the innovation plus a few understated triple turns.

Fast-forward to Act 2 and it’s not until Juliet sees that she will be forced to marry Paris that her innocence dissolves. From this chilling realisation comes resolve and suddenly her lines become decisive, focused and mature. At this point, her drastic, deceptive plan does seem like the only possible course of action.

Ilze Liepa, as Lady Capulet, provides the most vivid character on stage. With perhaps a nod to Baz Luhrmann's film version, she is a man-chasing Hollywood wife with one eye on the preening Tybalt. Tybalt’s death at the end of Act 1 sees her rage silently over his corpse while whole rows of women, in full skirts and veils, collapse with grief behind her, pulled to the ground in time with the ominous throb of the music. These stark black figures drowned in red light make the most striking scene of the performance.

The looming presence of the corps de ballet turns out to be an effective dramatic device: in the balcony scene the dancers lift Juliet out of reach of her Romeo; when Juliet cries herself to sleep they are the walls closing in around her; and in the tomb they create an eerie architecture.

In this condensed adaptation there’s not so much time to pull at the heartstrings but there’s still plenty of tragedy. When the lovers ultimately take their own lives, the chorus carry Juliet’s limp corpse to the bed and let it slump across Romeo’s. There’s no eternal embrace, no sense of the couple being finally, blissfully, united; just another two wasted bodies in somebody else’s war.

Donnellan’s production may be neither breathtaking nor groundbreaking, but with some poignant and powerful moments and plenty of style, it is not to be dismissed either.

Edited by Jeff.

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