Romeo and Juliet
The Australian Ballet
I've been a fan of Graeme Murphy's work since my student days and I'm rather partial to the Australian Ballet (AB), too. Murphy's 2002 version of Swan Lake, created for the AB, is a personal favourite. Thus it was with anticipation that I arrived at the theatre to see his interpretation of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, performed by our national flagship company. The company did not disappoint, with an array of evocative performances, all finished off with the most beautifully articulated feet.
As to the work itself, it is mixed. Although Murphy has chosen to stick closely to the traditional plot, he sets his Romeo and Juliet in a variety of locations in time and place. It's an interesting idea but it makes the work disjointed. We find ourselves variously in medieval-looking vaulted rooms, an ice palace, an Eastern-looking monks' temple, sand dunes . . . somewhere.
The synopsis does not offer an explanation. The Choreographer's Note sheds some light, explaining that Romeo and Juliet is a story for all times and places. It still feels odd, particularly when we shift from the chill, muted greens and greys of an icy ballroom to a riot of vibrant reds, turquoises, oranges and yellows in an Indian setting. While the apparently random shifts in time and location feel incongruous, that famous Murphy magic still casts its spell in many scenes. The aforementioned ballroom is home to the Capulet ball, where Murphy's choreography for the guests captures perfectly the dramatic tension of Prokofiev's composition, as do Akira Isogawa's costumes.
Clad in long, shimmery dresses topped by a shrug of plastic-looking spikes, the female guests look formidable. They lunge deeply towards their metallic-hued male counterparts, as if they are about to go into combat rather than dance. When the men sweep their partners overhead, the women's outstretched legs are reminiscent of the swords of other scenes. The only criticism to be made is that the ballroom appears to feature cellophane and plastic wrap - oddly budget-conscious in comparison to other design elements.
As one would hope, the balcony scene is another high point. There's a weightless quality to the young couple's pas de deux. Clasping Romeo's back, Juliet rides the merry-go-round of new love. He lifts her aloft as her feet tread - she is walking on air. In each other's arms, their heads circle one another, as though tracing every aspect of this perfect moment. The walls of Juliet's home disappear, replaced by low hanging stars - there is nothing for these two except each other.
Of course, this scene is nothing without the right dancers, and on opening night Madeleine Eastoe (Juliet) and Kevin Jackson (Romeo) delighted the audience. Eastoe's Juliet embodies the contradiction of adolescence - at once childish but full of steely teenage determination when challenged. Physically and emotionally she portrays the pure joy of falling in love - that lightness of body and spirit. Jackson is a delightfully impulsive Romeo, all boyish charm and passion. While suitably masculine, his allegro has a buoyancy that belies his muscular frame. Also deserving of mention is Brett Chynoweth as Mercutio. He and Jacob Sofer (Benvolio) make a deft, pelvic-thrusting comic duo. Chynoweth stands out technically, with his pleasingly air-borne sissones and grande jetes, and crisp grande pirouette a la seconde.
Murphy's Romeo and Juliet is a work of contrasts - there is so much to like and yet the strangeness of the abrupt changes in setting permeates the proceedings. The monks, clad in their Buddhist-style robes, feel like a particularly odd touch, especially as they appear before their scene has been introduced.
Nonetheless, ecstatic applause on opening night confirmed that Murphy remains a crowd- pleaser.