Sophie Martin as Juliet and Erik Cavallari as Romeo in Krzysztof Pastor’s 'Romeo and Juliet'.  Photo Andy Ross, © Scottish Ballet

Sophie Martin as Juliet and Erik Cavallari as Romeo in Krzysztof Pastor’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’.
Photo Andy Ross, © Scottish Ballet

Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, UK; May 16, 2014

Maggie Foyer

Scotland may still be deciding on whether to go for independence but Scottish Ballet is way ahead: the company has already forged an independent national identity of international quality. The company made a welcome return to London with Krzysztof Pastor’s “Romeo and Juliet”, an ideal vehicle to showcase this company who create characters of conviction and dance like demons.

Set in Italy, the central theme of true love traverses the decades from the 1930s to the present day played out against contemporary conflicts and political rivalries. The Capulets are magnificent and terrifying in equal measure: you can sense the Borgia DNA pulsing through their veins. Mercutio, Romeo and Benvolio lead the opposition, making a stand for individuals against state power. Pastor tells the tale through a rich choreographic language of many dialects. Each scene has its own tone; the tenderness of the love scenes, the hate made visible in the fights, the devastating deaths and the vibrancy of the crowd scenes – what joy to see a stage of airborne dancers!

Sophie Martin’s Juliet is unmistakably Capulet: strong willed and wanting her Romeo with a passion the brooks no opposition. She first appears standing alone on a stage of prone bodies in the aftermath of the Act I street fighting. Martin, a dancer as potent in stillness as in dance, establishes the depth of her character as she slowly walks the length of the stage to Prokofiev’s searing Act II overture before switching to the giggly charm of a teenager playing with her two friends.

Erik Cavallari’s Romeo is also a fascinating character study. A pleasant young man whose life is transformed through love, his strength builds as each trial intensifies his resolve. His and Juliet’s final scene is harrowing. Shorn of all sentimentality, it cuts to the quick as the sacrifice of youth hits home.

Pastor’s choreography covers the stage in movement expansive and free but the character is in the detail. I loved Juliet’s sudden almost involuntary tremors, a frisson that rippled through her torso or the sudden twitch of an arm. And the heads – the lovers nuzzle and nudge in ecstasy while Mercutio makes similar moves but with wicked irony as he taunts Tybalt.

Victor Zarallo as Mercutio and Christopher Harrison as Tybalt in Krzysztof Pastor’s 'Romeo and Juliet'.  Photo Christina Riley, © Scottish Ballet

Victor Zarallo as Mercutio and Christopher Harrison as Tybalt in Krzysztof Pastor’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’.
Photo Christina Riley, © Scottish Ballet

Victor Zarallo as Mercutio, tousled hair and fearless, uses his comic gifts to fine effect but it’s Christopher Harrison’s Tybalt who gets the knife in. With the tenacity of a bulldog, he never ceases to hate. His anger boils just below the surface and his a la second pirouettes have the lethal action of a scythe. In a brief scene in the ballroom, his anger is channelled into libido as he meets his match in Lady Capulet (Eva Mutso). It’s a dream of a part for the tall Estonian, a tiger in black velvet. Her Lord, Owen Thorne, dark and dangerous, dominates the stage with supreme authority. His every fibre breathes power and when he leaps into action the results are thrilling. The second act, where he confronts the wayward Juliet, is densely layered with conflicting emotion. Anger, fear, family loyalty and yes, even love meld in a case book study in psychology.

The taut setting, minimal and monochrome, allows the drama to take centre stage. And this is handled deftly: it is Juliet’s friends who whisper in Romeo’s ear that Juliet wishes to marry him. The Friar, a strong performance from Lewis Landini, explains the potency of his potion in two simple gestures. The fatal missed delivery of the message is equally simple: Romeo and the Friar simply turn the wrong way, revolving back to back and exit without making eye contact. It is one of those Thomas Hardy moments when you see disaster looming and desperately want to rewind and change the plot.

The atmospheric designs by Tatyana van Walsum, lit by Bert Dalhuysen, dress the stage in projections of archive Italy with the addition of the barest minimum of stage furniture. Pastor used projections to similar good effect in his “Don Giovanni” in Amsterdam 2005, creating the atmosphere while taking none of the floor space – such a good idea for dance.

“Romeo and Juliet” is a symbiosis of fine talent and was given the performance it deserves. Christopher Hampson, now into his second year as director, has a national treasure to be proud of, both in his company and in their repertoire.