Ballet Cymru, Riverfront Theatre, Newport
It is not enough nowadays to rely solely on the story of Romeo and Juliet to entrance an audience, so embedded is the narrative in the constructs of dramatic tragedy. There are wild bushmen in Borneo who know the story arc. The play needs a turn, a directorial swish, say, or a central performance, that brings something new and enlightening to one of western literature’s most referenced works. In Emily Pimm Edwards’ Juliet, Ballet Cymru have that rare central performance, and in the choreography of Darius James and Amy Doughty, they have found that swish.
Romeo and Juliet is unusual in Shakespeare, in that it has the ability to pack a punch stripped of his poetry. Prokofiev could see that, his ballet one of the enduring as well as endearing masterpieces of the form. He plays with the source material a little, and Ballet Cymru play with his variations. There are moments of dazzling modern feints amidst the classicism, explosions of both ecstasy and grief that seem too profound to be held back by rigid technique. When Juliet leaps to Romeo toward the end of the first act, their love for each other confirmed, and wraps her legs around his waist, the audience moves with her; it seems to matter very little that the aesthetic is more closely matched to a cigar girl welcoming home a Tommy safely from the trenches, rather than the grandest of romantic tragedies.
There are many brave, startling moments such as this, but they do not overwhelm, and they are becoming a hallmark of Ballet Cymru’s progressive and confident approach to their material. The company has a genuine love for classicism (you can see that merely in the productions they choose to mount) but is ambitious and is a place where thinking is done on the feet.
Most notable of these eyebrow-raising moments is the clog dance that accompanies the first eruption of Prokofiev’s most famous piece, ‘Montagues and Capulets’ (or the ‘Dance of the Knights’). The audience reacted enthusiastically to the imposing scene of masked men percussively thumping their clogs into the stage, but it didn’t entirely work in the confines of the narrative. As a set-piece, although a little out of step on a few beats, it added something akin to freshness for a section that must be a challenge to make vibrant anew, but there seemed little reason for it in the context of the tragedy, and ultimately served to drown out much of the wonderfully bombastic playing of the excellent Sinfonia Cymru.
Other set-pieces were far more successful. The street fights were tirelessly energetic, and the deaths of Tybalt (Sam Bishop) and Mercutio (Daisuke Miura) were brilliant contrasts of heroic lingering and a harder-they-fall finality. All of the ensemble work was particularly strong.
As Mercutio, the marvellously boisterous and charming hero who is forever destined to miss the second half, Miura threatens to steal the show, as he also threatened to do with his Caliban in Ballet Cymru’s The Tempest last year. Mercutio’s swagger is something ready-made for the movement of ballet, and Miura proves once again to be the most mischievous and ambrosial of dancers.
Lydia Arnoux, (whose enchanting performance as Ariel was a highlight of 2012), once again lights the stage every time she springs onto it, here as Juliet’s friend (a character largely carrying the function of Shakespeare’s nurse). The audience lift when she enters, and her subtle shift from girlish joy to broken grief is a careful display of skill, both of dance and acting. Her sisterly connection to Juliet is the most convincing relationship in the production.
Where this Romeo a Juliet does fall short is in the lack of electricity between Daniel Morrison’s Romeo and Edwards’ Juliet. The scenes between them are functional and competent; frustratingly, they both shine apart, but there is little depth to them as a duo. At first this threatens to undermine the whole thing, but with the death of Mercutio at the end of the first half, all male characters seem to sink into the shade with him, and Edwards, after a merely good first half, dominates the second. It is a marvellously commanding performance of grace and stamina, of an intensity that sometimes the choreography struggles to keep up with. It is this Juliet that lifts Ballet Cymru’s interpretation above the average. It will be interesting to see what Edwards does next, having mastered the tragic romance, and a turn in something like Verdi’s Macbeth might bring her on even further. There are moments in the second half, when Juliet contemplates her plan to trick everyone into believing her dead, that maintain the essence of transcribing the poetry of emotion into the poetry of movement. After a slow start it becomes a majestic interpretation of one of all tragedy’s most bemoaned heroines.
Ballet Cymru’s Romeo a Juliet will prove to be an important chapter in their evolving catalogue of productions, a résumé that is becoming keenly associated with the classics. They have a young company brimming with talent and ideas, and they should be commended for their approach; for if some of their productions are uneven, the unevenness always appears as a result of honest exploration. The company has produced some remarkable individual performances over the last couple of years to the backdrop of arresting and always interesting productions, and it is difficult not to feel this current troupe are building up to something where it all comes together. Ballet Cymru has true poetry in it, and someday soon it will produce its magnum opus.