Sadler’s Wells Theatre
London

29 May 2024

Maggie Foyer

Christopher Gable, who devised and directed the original production of this Romeo and Juliet, has his DNA clearly stamped on the work: it is youthful, bursting with energy and full-on theatrical. The Northern Ballet dancers, now directed by Federica Bonelli, gave a matching performance. Premiered in 1998, the production was shelved in 2015 when sets and costumes were damaged by flood water. Over the last year they have been restored and with help from some of the original cast the ballet has been returned to its former glory.

Joseph Taylor as Romeo and Dominique Larose as Juliet (from a different cast)
Photo Emily Nuttall

It is Juliet and Romeo who carry the story. Saeka Shirai is high spirited, utterly enchanting, and ready to capture hearts. Her Romeo, Harris Beattie, is completely besotted. Their encounter in the ballroom sets hearts on fire and is well structed to play out against moment of freeze-frame as the world stands still. Their meeting in the garden and a first kiss, is tempered with simplicity and genuine emotion and Shirai and Beattie gave a heart stopping performance.

Dominique Larose as Juliet (from a different cast)
Photo Emily Nuttall

It is Juliet’s character that makes the greatest transformation as she defies family and tradition to follow her heart. Shirai is initially the adolescent, wickedly teasing her Nurse and viewing Paris, a noble Harry Skoupas, with interest. By the third act she is a terrified young adult. The depth of her fear was palpable but so is her commitment and there is no deviating from her chosen path.

Romeo opens Act Two in a euphoric daze but is teased out of it by his stalwart friends, Benvolio, played with genuine sympathy by Filippo Di Vilio and a mercurial Mercutio, Jun Ishii.  Ishii, bursting with energy and with a brilliant technique, gave an explosive performance that very nearly stole the show. However, he was also proved a good team player in the well-choreographed trios. His foolery from the outset made his death scene even more poignant as his friends don’t take his wounding seriously until they finally realise that he is dead.

This version premiered in 1992, with choreography by Massimo Moricone is classical but giving full weight to dramatic expression. The street scenes have elements of athletic street dance while the pas de deux are driven by emotion. The action moves at a lively pace with much of the pomp and ceremony trimmed. The first street battle between Montagues and Capulets ends sharply as the Prince appears. There is one death, and this is given genuine concern as friends rally round, but the scene is neatly curtailed, and the story moves on. A very real moment is the Nurse, a sterling performance from Dominique Larose, who first tidies the death bed under Juliet’s body in a perfunctory manner before breaking down in grief. The central love story takes priority, the rest is auxiliary, and it works a treat.

Rachael Gillespie as Juliet’s friend
Photo Emily Nuttall

Lez Brotherston’s designs are in the same vein. The set recreates the Renaissance period with the minimum of fuss. The pillars and balconies become versatile platforms supporting the dance and drama. Jonathan Howell’s fight direction is pitch perfect, spontaneous and real. The first battle sets the tone, the Montagues come prepared with short blades and the Capulets defend themselves with sticks or whatever comes to hand. Each encounter is adapted to the situation to keep the drama real.

Shakepeare’s bawdy humour gets full expression in market scenes where Larose has a riotous time – in red point shoes. Sex and violence are also mixed in a very real manner as George Liang, a hot-tempered Tybalt abuses a Capulet woman but gets as good as he gives in return.

Helen Bogatch as Lady Capulet is a fearsome woman, lacking in any maternal feelings but fierce in her protection of family. Her mourning over the dead body of Tybalt is terrifying and the thunderstorm that echoes her cries makes a dramatic end to the second act.

Jonathan Hanks as Lord Capulet toes the line, well-meaning but ineffectual in the face of his daughter’s tragedy. The company gave excellent support as ‘Cats’ and ‘Birds’, courtiers, friends and citizens of Verona, versatile in their characters and technically proficient. And a mention for a sympathetic Friar, Ashley Dixon. Northern Ballet Sinfonia, under conductor Daniel Parkinson, gave a strong performance of Prokofiev’s magnificent score that was much appreciated by the audience.