Royal Swedish Ballet: Mats Ek’s Juliet & Romeo

Posted: October 10th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Performance | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Royal Swedish Ballet: Mats Ek’s Juliet & Romeo

Royal Swedish Ballet, Juliet & Romeo, Sadler’s Wells, September 27

Mariko Kida and Anthony Lomuljo in Mats Ek's Juliet & Romeo (photo: Gert Weigelt)

Mariko Kida and Anthony Lomuljo in Mats Ek’s Juliet & Romeo (photo: Gert Weigelt)

When you are familiar with a particular interpretation of a classic work it tends to provide an emotional and intellectual framework to which a new one will inevitably be compared. The first Romeo and Juliet I saw was Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s 1965 production for the Royal Ballet and its story line, characters and its Prokofiev score have since become a benchmark. Now, nearly fifty years later, Mats Ek has produced a new version of Shakespeare’s play for the Royal Swedish Ballet, but its break with MacMillan’s treatment is so fresh that it commands attention.

Perhaps most importantly, Ek has chosen to cast aside Prokofiev’s original music in favour of a composite score of Tchaikovsky’s familiar and less familiar works (chosen by Ek and adapted and arranged by Anders Högstedt) that are nonetheless rich enough in fanfare, emotion and minor keys to colour and support the action. The choice of music frees Ek — who can draw from his experience as stage director as well as choreographer — to establish his own vision of Shakespeare’s play.

The backdrop of Verona is dropped, too, in favour of Magdalena Åberg’s set of steely, movable panels that suggest no particular place or time and which, rearranged by the dancers and transformed by Linus Fellbom’s lighting, become the walls, alleys and interior spaces in which the story unfolds. This choreographic manipulation of the stage elements echoes a constant theme of encroaching violence: Åberg‘s elegant, autumnal-coloured costumes engulf the bright yellow dress of Juliet but cannot extinguish it and the trapdoor in the stage through which Romeo first appears becomes the lovers’ grave.

Ek has stripped the cast of principal characters to a minimum. There is only one family, that of Juliet: her mother and father, her cousins Tybalt and Rosaline, her nurse, her nurse’s servant, Peter, and her suitor Paris. By comparison, Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio are seen as stateless outsiders. The only figure of (ineffectual) authority is the Prince whom we first see skating into a headwind to the opening theme of the First Piano Concerto in B Flat minor.

Those who search for the story in the printed program may be flummoxed and perhaps irritated by the lack of a synopsis as not all the characters are immediately identifiable. It is worth remembering that Shakespeare’s play does not begin with an outline of the plot, either. He provided the dramatis personae and the setting but it was left up to the audience to deduce the story from the snippets of chorus and the dialogue between the characters. Ek’s approach is the same: the ‘text’ is his richly poetic choreographic language in which metaphor and simple character traits are juxtaposed with such mastery that he can transport us vividly not only into the lives of his protagonists but also into his overarching themes. If you see Juliet & Romeo in the same way you might listen to Wagner without knowing the story, the emotional clout will remain with you long after you have studied and forgotten the complexities of the narrative.

While the choreography carries the story — in particular the love duet at the end of the first act between Juliet (Mariko Kida) and Romeo (Anthony Lomuljo) that contains all the rapturous enthusiasm and abandon of first love — there are two characters who rise above the story through the fullness of their portrayal. Ana Laguna as Juliet’s nurse has a heart that balances compassion for her ward with an irreverent sense of fun. The weight and authority of her gestures and her freedom of expression make her utterly convincing. The portrayal of Romeo’s friend Mercutio (Jérôme Marchand) as a brash, warm-hearted homosexual attracts both the devotion of Benvolio (Hokuto Kodama) as his chirpy guardian angel and the venom of Tybalt (Dawid Kupinski) whose steely machismo astride his Segway bears an eerie resemblance to Vladimir Putin on horseback. Bare-chested in his black leather pants and tutu, Marchand is like a jester whose convoluted and bawdy personality is at constant risk in a homophobic society. When Tybalt kills him in a brawl, the ugly sub-story is one of gay bashing. When Juliet dies at the hand of her father (Arsen Mehrabyan), the ugly sub story is that of honour killings. These two deaths are not lost in the mists of history to contrast with a beautiful love story, but are a reminder that such insidious violence can erupt — and does erupt — within our own society.

The impression Juliet & Romeo leaves is that of a morality play of our time, a meditation on the tragic consequences of discriminatory authority. The final scene of the full cast lying on their backs and raising their legs in solidarity with those of the upturned corpses of the two lovers is Ek’s transcendent metaphor for change.