31 May 2024

Northern Ballet, Romeo and Juliet

After a long absence Northern Ballet are touring their Christopher Gable/Massimo Moricone Romeo and Juliet again. Welcome back, we say, to a pacy and powerful production…

Sarah Chun in Romeo and Juliet. © Emily NuttallSarah Chun in Romeo and Juliet. © Emily Nuttall

Northern Ballet
Romeo and Juliet
London, Sadler’s Wells
30 May 2024, matinee
On tour through to October 2024

Northern Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet brings back a flood of happy memories of the 1990s. For most of the decade, until his untimely death, the much-admired Christopher Gable directed the company (then known as Northern Ballet Theatre). As one of the foremost dramatic dancers and actors of his age, he put the emphasis on narrative works that really connected with the audience. He had class and made ballet that was real and engaging, and the audience responded.

Gable was a hands-on artistic director, often devising and directing the works in collaboration with the choreographer and the designer, and for many, his Romeo and Juliet is the best example of this approach. Perhaps it should come as no surprise because, while a principal with the Royal Ballet, it was he and Lynn Seymour who worked with Kenneth MacMillan on what is probably the most celebrated Romeo production in the world. Rightly, Gable’s version, created with choreographer Massimo Moricone and designer Lez Brotherston, won many awards and was toured much.

Sadly, in 2015, the sets and costumes were wrecked in floods, and it’s a relief that the company has devoted the wherewithal to revive such an important work. It was money very well spent.

At 2 hours and 20 minutes, this Romeo and Juliet has terrific energy and pace, with none of the longueurs that often seem to creep into many versions. It opens with an attention-grabbing short preface of just Romeo and Juliet on opposite sides of the stage, high up on balconies in Lez Brotherston’s towering set of columns; the two desperately wanting to be together but unstoppable rolling thunder tears them and their world apart. It’s a start that says it all about what we will witness, and the rolling thunder of circumstance subsequently opens each of the remaining acts.

While the stone sets are monumental, smoothly adapting to be ballroom, bedroom or town square, the hallmark of the production is of real characters brought to life: the ineffectual Lord Capulet, the controlling and scheming Lady Capulet, the happy bumbling nurse, the bright spark that is Mercutio and the unhinged nastiness of Tybalt. And the staging of certain scenes hit me in the guts, particularly the scream of a mother on finding her dead child after the marketplace fighting - the slaughter of the innocents far more telling than any of the Prince of Verona’s remonstrations. The slowly unfolding death of Mercutio feels all too larkily real, as does the chilling and savage response in the killing of Tybalt.

There is not much I would criticise, but the Dance of the Knights (at the Capulet’s ball) I’d rechristen the Dance of the Snooker Cues - you’ll know it when you see it. And I wouldn’t say I like Shakespeare’s ending with the two Lords being reconciled - it seems too pat and detracts from the pathos of the lovers’ needless deaths. But really, who am I to quibble with The Bard’s original plot?

Northern has brought to London casts featuring four Juliets and two Romeos. New to me was leading soloist Sarah Chun, and she made a good impression as a dance actress coping with the roller coaster demands of the role. Tall, premier dancer Joseph Taylor has safe, tender hands and matinee idle looks that would make any Juliet swoon. But killing Tybalt aside, he seemed forever affably mono-dimensional. The scariest person on stage just had to be Abigail Prudames’ Lady Capulet - so chilly, even when confronted with her daughter’s (apparent) death. But Man of the Match’ for me was the Mercutio of Aaron Kok. Only joining the company last year and at the most junior of ranks, he really seized the role and fizzed with matey personality and striking technique - what jumps!

Overwhelmingly, this is a thoughtful and vivid production you would be daft to miss as it tours the country through to October. Kudos to artistic director Federico Bonelli for making it happen and to everyone on stage for delivering with such brio.