Romeo & Juliet
Performed by The Australian Ballet
State Theatre, the Arts Centre, Melbourne
September 13, until September 24, 2011
There’s been a huge weight of expectation surrounding this new, full-length Graeme Murphy ballet. His Swan Lake and Nutcracker challenged conventions and won hearts. Now, Murphy tackles Romeo and Juliet, retaining the bones of Shakespeare’s tragic tale and much of the Prokofiev score, but bravely shedding any concrete allusions to time and place.
Storytelling is Murphy’s great strength. Propelled by exceptional performances from the dancers, his choreography embodies the violent delights of young love and the pitiful sight of its untimely end. Through skittish runs en pointe we notice Juliet’s youth, while Romeo’s swooping arabesque turns illustrate his prodigious burst of passion. In the title roles Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson are terrific, growing naturally from cheeky innocence to their distraught and decisive final moments.
The trajectory of their relationship is flawlessly developed in their pas de deux. From tentative beginnings to intimate embraces, delicately intertwining arm motifs and challenging balances and lifts, Murphy combines virtuosity with structural depth and pathos.
The playfully bawdy physicality of Daniel Gaudiello’s Mercutio and the intensely protective ferocity of Andrew Kylian as Tybalt counterbalance the romantic tenderness, with supporting roles also brilliantly devised and enacted.
Gerard Manion’s attractive sets switch rapidly between exotic locations, beginning with a sword fight in fair Verona and moving on to an Indian bazaar, a Buddhist temple and finally a bed of yellow skulls in the Sahara desert. The unstable setting points to the universal themes of the story, arguably a fantastically visionary contrivance or a clunky colonialist folly. Either way, the time-space shifts seem outrageously oblique in an otherwise linear narrative.
Other dramatic devices read with greater success. Freeze frames allow important characters to stand out in crowded scenes. Adam Bull is the embodiment of death in the newly invented Prince of Darkness role, skulking around the mortals, haunting their steps and influencing their fate.
Akira Isogawa’s divine costumes are equally as fascinating as Murphy’s choreography, both are endowed with beautiful detail and flair. Outfits and action are particularly well matched in the Capulet ballroom, a glamorous and spiky affair, with stiffly splayed fingers and gowns in icy tones.
Damien Cooper’s lighting makes the most of the richly designed space, while Jason Lam’s digital projections add another layer of depth and transformation.
Although this lavish exploration of death-marked love brings out the best in the Australian Ballet, its roving scenes are a gamble that do not always pay off.
First published in The Age newspaper