Royal Albert Hall, London, UK; June 12, 2014

David Mead

Friedemann Vogel and Alina Cojocaru in 'Romeo and Juliet'.  Photo © ASH

Friedemann Vogel and Alina Cojocaru in ‘Romeo and Juliet’.
Photo © ASH

Derek Deane’s ‘in the round’ version of the story of Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers for English National Ballet was devised especially for the 5,000-seat Royal Albert Hall back in 1998, when a certain Tamara Rojo was his muse. Now Artistic Director of the Company, Rojo is dancing some performances this season alongside her former Royal Ballet partner Carlos Acosta. On this, the second night of the run, though, it was Alina Cojocaru and Friedemann Vogel (guesting from Stuttgart Ballet) who took the leads, although another Acosta, Carlos’ nephew Yonah, was also to make quite an impression as Mercutio.

Like his “Swan Lake”, Deane’s production comes with no proscenium arch. At one end there’s a crenelated wall, on which the orchestra sit atop. But other than that the only set consists of a several market stalls that are easily wheeled on and off, and that block the view of some people in the front couple of rows; the famous balcony, which magically glides in through a large door in the aforementioned wall, and the necessary bed-cum-bier. The lack of set is barely noticeable, especially when Howard Harrison pulls off magical moments with lights such as the projection of a huge stained glass window on the floor to signify the church. Dancers enter and exit through the audience as much as from beneath the musicians, bringing a closeness to the action rarely felt.

To fill the huge arena, ENB call on around forty extra dancers for the ballet, plus a group of children from Tring Park School for the Performing Arts. The Verona marketplace is certainly abuzz. Some realism is added by the dancers apparently having been given some rein to invent characters and stories. When arguments and later sword fights break out, there is a real sense of panic as the children scramble into the arms of their mothers, who shepherd their young to safety.

Friedemann Vogel and Alina Cojocaru in 'Romeo and Juliet'.  Photo © ASH

Friedemann Vogel and Alina Cojocaru in ‘Romeo and Juliet’.
Photo © ASH

And yet, in other ways things seem a little sanitised. Roberta Guidi di Bagno’s costumes generally do the job well, but everyone is incredibly neatly dressed – including the four perfectly groomed harlots, who look about as far from ladies of the street as it’s possible to get. The one big costume faux pas is that for the soldiers, who looked like a cross between American Footballers and Cybermen looking for Dr Who.

The main characters are generally and necessarily in the midst of the throng. But the very busy-ness, and the fact there is no ‘front’, tends to hide things, sometimes very important things. In the market, Romeo and his friends tend to get ‘lost’, as does Rosaline, with a lot of good dance being missed as a result. The Capulet ball suffers the same problems, with that all-important moment when Romeo and Juliet first make eye contact almost totally lost.

In contrast to Deane’s “Swan Lake” in the round, where the huge flock of 60 swans plays an important role, this ballet improves immensely when the throng disappears and the leading characters are given a chance to shine.

For “Romeo and Juliet” to work as a story, a totally believable Juliet is a must – and Cojocaru scored a bulls-eye. She is an excellent dancer-actor. Her incredible acting skills were there for all to see. It says a lot that even in this vast arena one could sense her hopes and fears, and best of all, the exhilaration of first love.

Vogel made for a tall and handsome Romeo, filled with almost puppyish joie de vivre – at least when playing with his mates. It was hardly a surprise that Juliet rejected the pasty and insipid Paris for him. Who wouldn’t? He and Cojocaru made a perfect couple. Hardly surprisingly, their balcony scene is a highlight, although it lacks the spine-tingling effect of many others. What is clever, is the way Deane stops the dance occasionally during the pas de deux; the couple looking at each other as if whispering sweet nothings, before setting off again.

Howard Harrison's lighting to depict the church in English National Ballet's Romeo and Juliet in the round.  Photo © ASH

Howard Harrison’s lighting to depict the church in English National Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet in the round.
Photo © ASH

Best of all, though, is the closing scene in the crypt. For a start, it’s a brilliant piece of staging, the arena being beautifully and simply lit by 28 large candles, carried in by monks and placed on the floor in a huge circle around the bier. Vogel flinging and hauling Cojocaru’s perfectly limp and lifeless body around was heart-tugging enough, but those spine tingles finally put in an appearance as she woke up and the horror of her situation hit home.

Complementing the leading couple, Yonah Acosta was a whirlwind of smiles as the happy-go-lucky, sparky Mercutio, always, it seemed, wondering what fun jape he could play next. Along with Romeo and James Forbat’s rather modest and diffident Benvolio, he made full use of the Albert Hall’s huge spaces in some impressive big jetés.

Max Westwell in his red leather jacket was a sneering Tybalt, although without ever appearing especially menacing or commanding; and certainly not nasty. Jane Haworth and James Streeter as Juliet’s parents were effective. Haworth grieved dramatically and convincingly as she rampaged round the stage following the death of Tybalt.

Yonah Acosta as Mercutio in English National Ballet's 'Romeo and Juliet' in the round. Photo © ASH

Yonah Acosta as Mercutio in English National Ballet’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in the round.
Photo © ASH

If you’re looking for a truly dramatic “Romeo and Juliet”, this is not it. Although the usual big emotional hit is delivered at the end, for the most part it’s a bit tame. It’s not just that the Montague heavies aren’t especially, well, heavy, but the sword-fighting, for example, must be some of least convincing ever seen on a ballet stage. The ballet certainly lacks the excitement of Nureyev’s 1977 (admittedly fussy choreographically) production, performed so well by the company a couple of years ago.

For all that, you can’t deny that Deane’s “Romeo and Juliet” is a spectacle in an impressive setting. It is certainly family friendly, and there’s a lot to be said for that. Kids sitting near the aisles in the first level will love all the rushing past of dancers as they enter and exit. It also makes you wonder what other ballets might be suitable for arena settings. Just imagine what a dramatic shipwreck you could conjure up. “Le Corsaire”, anyone?

“Romeo and Juliet” continues at the Royal Albert Hall to June 22.