Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, UK; September 24, 2014

David Mead

Mariko Kida and Anthony Lomuljo as Juliet and Romeo.  Photo © Gert Weigelt

Mariko Kida and Anthony Lomuljo as Juliet and Romeo.
Photo © Gert Weigelt

The title gives a hint. Although the fundamental story of the young innocent lovers remains, Mat’s Ek’s “Juliet & Romeo” is not simply another telling of the Shakespeare tale. The title is a nod to Luigi da Porto’s 1530 novella “Giulietta e Romeo”, which itself is based on earlier versions, Ek pointing out in the programme that one of Shakespeare’s early drafts was similarly titled. So, he argues, what he is doing here is going back to the true source.

Ek’s story places the lovers in an urban wasteland; a city and society racked by darkness. There are suggestions of violence at every corner, and there are certainly plenty of shadowy ones in Magdalena Åberg’s inventive grey-black set comprising a series of movable walls that are manipulated by the cast to create a maze of alleyways and constantly change the performance space.

Åberg is also responsible for the excellent costumes. Once we get past the greyness of the opening, the women’s long flowing dresses – in solid colours with a somewhat oily sheen – are particularly striking. The men’s dark clothing has hints of silver and gold. Juliet’s appearance in a yellow dress, hinting at her rebellious nature, comes as a striking contrast. The Nurse, in red, also stands out. Romeo is in light grey, emphasising his ordinary-ness.

It takes a while to establish characters. Romeo appears through a trapdoor in the stage and disappears over a wall. Dancers run from behind and between more walls like different gangs, although they are never identified. One of Ek’s changes is to do away with the idea of two families feuding. Indeed, the Montague family don’t appear at all. Not that it matters. It’s all hugely effective, every moment filled with tension and hints at hostility. The impotence of the Prince (Jan-Erik Wikström) and his inability to stop any of this is cleverly demonstrated by his running at speed on the spot; apparently doing lots, but actually getting nowhere.

Jerome Marchand (leaping) as Mercutio and Hokuto Kodama as Benvolio in Mats Ek's 'Juliet & Romeo'.  Photo © Gert Weigelt

Jerome Marchand (leaping) as Mercutio and Hokuto Kodama as Benvolio in Mats Ek’s ‘Juliet & Romeo’.
Photo © Gert Weigelt

Given Ek’s editing and changing of the story, it was a wise move not to use the well-known, but extremely prescriptive Prokofiev score. Instead, the music is from a selection from well-known Tchaikovsky works, all neatly stitched together into a largely coherent whole by Anders Högstedt.

The dance itself is typical Ek: usually energetic, sometimes soft and light, sometimes hard and rough. Especially in the ensemble sections, there are lots of leans on the diagonal, arms reaching out, arcing legs, curved upper backs. The dance always certainly flows, Ek never lettings the interest wander, and every now and then tossing in the occasional moments of humour, such as a tooth being obviously knocked out, and the city Police turning up on Segways.

The choreographic highlights are the two intimate balcony (except that there’s no balcony) and bedroom duets for Juliet and Romeo, danced by the wide-eyed but strong-willed Mariko Kida and the somewhat dreamy, easy-going Anthony Lumuljo. The emotions in both come across as sincere and spontaneous, but where they really work is that, despite Ek’s idiosyncratic movement, both also appear so natural. They have a casual air about them and moments that make you smile.
They truly made you believe.

Act II moves on apace; if anything, too fast, never quite living up to what the first half promised. Surprisingly little is made of the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt, with both over in a flash, although in Ek’s ballet, Tybalt is rather a sidelined figure. Also gone from Ek’s version is any reference to a potion or priest. When Juliet once again refuses her father’s wish that she marry Paris, he strikes her and kills her. The speed and finality of it is sudden and shocking moment. When Romeo subsequently meets her at her grave, she returns to life for a moment, for a last embrace.The supporting cast were all excellent. Both Jérôme Marchand as the macho Mercutio and Hokuto Kodama as Benvolio stood out. The shaven-headed Marchand was a tough and aggressive individual, and one susceptible to violent mood swings; a gang leader if ever there was one. His relationship with the jokey yet clearly insecure Benvolio suggested an older brother looking after his younger sibling. The rapport and connection between made for a fascinating side-story.

Also to the fore was the outstanding Ana Laguna as the Nurse, the one person who defends Juliet. When she makes the leading men leap over one another like a ringmaster conducting acrobats provides light relief before death comes calling.

The final image is unusual. Ek has everyone lie down, legs raised in the air in an imitation of the two lover’s pose. It’s startling and oddly unsettling. It certainly sits in the memory – as indeed does the whole wonderful production.

Mats Ek’s “Juliet & Romeo” is part of the Northern Light season of Scandinavian dance at Sadler’s Wells that continues to November 14. Click here for details.