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Mark Morris Dance Group

'Romeo and Juliet, On Motifs of Shakespeare'

by David Mead

November 8, 2008 -- Barbican Theatre, London

It is not commonly known that the Prokofiev score for “Romeo and Juliet” that we all know and love is significantly different to the original, the changes being made following requests by Leonid Lavrovsky in 1940.  But let’s get one thing straight.  Mark Morris’ “Romeo and Juliet” is neither a restoration nor a reconstruction of the original.  Rather it is what composers Simon Morrison and Gregory Spears call a “historical recovery” in which they have removed the 1938 additions, reordered what was left, and scored a happy ending based on Prokofiev’s manuscript annotations.

While this makes the work interesting musically, as a piece of dance it is far from remarkable.  The additions stretch performances to a little over three hours, which Morris sometimes struggles to fill with equally interesting choreography.  There seems to be a lot of padding and repetition of steps, and at times an awful lot of walking.  This was especially true in the ballroom, where the “Dance of the Knights” lost almost all its usual power.  Most disappointingly though, he has succeeded in removing much of the emotion and created a “Romeo and Juliet” where we just don’t care for the lovers, here danced by David Leventhal and Rita Donahue.

The work does have its moments. Morris has come up with some nice ideas.  One of the most interesting is casting of two women, Amber Darragh and Julie Warden, as Mercutio and Tybalt.  Dancing in men’s dress, they brought an interesting dynamic and a different intensity to their roles.  Both gave us much lighter characters than we are used to seeing.  Warden’s Tybalt was much less unsavoury than usual, although still spoiling for a fight, while Darragh showed a nice sense of fun. 

Elsewhere, John Heginbotham’s Friar Laurence was much more prominent than priests in most other versions.  Both scenes in the church were well constructed, especially when Juliet collects her potion.  As elsewhere, Morris takes a very naturalistic approach.  Even though the Friar explains in detail what will happen, the choreography allows Juliet to show us her real fears and doubts in following his advice.

Morris has dispensed with the well-known balcony.  Instead, the two lovers return to the now deserted ballroom.  It’s an idea that works in the sense that it is a place full of memories of their first meeting.  And the duet does start promisingly as the couple circle and mirror each other, repeating steps from their earlier encounter.  Again, the natural approach is to the fore, Morris choosing not to use the traditional embraces and soaring lifts seen in ballets.  But it never really goes anywhere.  There was a feeling that love was there somewhere but it was hidden away.  The emotion never really broke the surface.

The bedroom pas de deux at the beginning of Act III was much better.  Morris has the almost naked lovers moving playfully on and around the bed, making clever use of the bright red bed sheet.  For the first time we really got a sense of two people who very much care for each other. 

The happy ending is not a problem in itself.  Indeed, the best of all the duets was that which immediately followed Juliet waking up from her drugged stupor.  In another change, she has not been moved to the crypt but is still in her bedroom.  Romeo reappears through the window and the pair cement their love.  But the mood and feeling was then completely destroyed by a long scene change, after which the curtain rises to reveal the star crossed lovers in a dreadfully corny, saccharin-sweet, starry universe.  Instead of the usual powerful ending, we are then presented with a final duet that does nothing to enhance the work and leaves a strange feeling of emptiness.

There are other issues.  The way Morris has Juliet slowly collapse into a drugged sleep as the potion takes hold and as the wedding guests arrive laden with gifts is powerfully done.  Sadly, what then follows is a series of mostly forgettable divertissements.  Only a dance for the men, to the familiar mandolin music, lived on in the memory.

The fight scenes also leave something to be desired.  Morris has opted for wooden swords of the type young children might play with.  The result is something that is neither realistic, odd in itself given his approach elsewhere, nor abstract.

All the action takes place in Allen Moyer’s wooden panelled set that gives a contemporary feel while not losing a sense of time and place.  It worked as both an indoor and outdoor space, each set of vertical panels sometimes opening to provide additional entrances and exits.  Moyer also makes clever use of model buildings to represent the town.

I do like Mark Morris’ often irreverent approach to dance and life.  He and his associates should be commended for their work with the score and trying a different approach.  “Romeo and Juliet” is not an unpleasant way to while away three hours.  Morris is often an inventive dance-maker.  But apart from odd moments, and the interesting things that have been done with the score, his “Romeo and Juliet” is ultimately disappointing and rather unfulfilling.

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