Friday, 18 January 2019

REVIEW: Romeo And Juliet - The Palace Theatre, Manchester.

The Moscow City Ballet is visiting Manchester as part of their 2019 tour around England. Last night saw them present the popular ballet Romeo and Juliet with music by Prokofiev.

The opening tableau presented the audience with a clear notion of what was to come – four bodies were carried on in an upside-down cross form and presented to the audience. Death is how it started and death is how it will end. Part of the draw to Romeo and Juliet – in any form – is that we already know what will happen to them but still, we want to feel with and for the tragic eponymous protagonists and follow their destiny.

We were soon presented with Romeo and his Montague friends. This gang of happy-go-lucky characters had plenty of charm and engaged the audience straight away. Mercutio was immediately identifiable and his character, performed by Aleksei Tsavko, was warm and plucky right to his demise. Romeo was also easily identifiable – dressed all in white with bright blonde hair. Played by Dzimitry Lazovik, Romeo was youthful and spritely and a clear strong choice from his dancing ability but I must say that his character did not have any depth and it was difficult to warm to him as the story progressed. It is difficult to tell a story without words, and in ballet, the facial expression of the dancers is vital to convey both character and narrative. Lazovik was weak in this regard.

The Capulet men were soon engaged in taunting the Montagues, and again a strong gang of male dancers were presented to us. Each family were easily identified by the colour of their period costumes – the Montagues in blues and greens, the Capulets in oranges and reds. Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin (Talgat Kozhabaev) was a formidable presence and a clearly experienced performer.

Against these two teams of rivals, the Capulet and Montague ladies were quite bland and uniform in their dress. It was very difficult to tell any of them apart and there was no character at all in their performances. Nevertheless, they were all clearly strong dancers and their lack of character was a fault perhaps of convention and artistic direction. Some individuality here would have presented their set pieces with more interest. The choreography successfully carried the narrative along, combining elements of traditional ballet with some more modern techniques in a blended way. This really complimented the neo-classical scoring of Prokofiev’s music which also blends traditional classical composition with dissonances and 20th century cinematic scoring.

Prokofiev’s music is the preferred setting of Romeo and Juliet, and its orchestration is rich and full of interesting rhythm and melody and deeply emotive. Unfortunately, this was hard to tell from the Hungarian Sinfonieta Orchestra’s performance who – quite frankly – were one of the worst orchestras I have heard in a very long time. Perhaps ever. There was not an ounce of dynamic variation and each crunch of meaningful dissonance in the score was either resisted or ignored completely. The strings were particularly woeful – they simply could not play the higher notes and were out of tune for many instances. Well half of them were in tune, and half weren’t which produced a very unpleasant experience. Nevertheless, the pace was driving and the many soloist sections were played with relish – particularly in the woodwind section. This greatly disappointing performance – pedestrian at best, grating at worse – must have had an impact on the dancers who, while they showed great skill, did not appear to be on top form.

Juliet, Kseniya Stankevich, was one of the few saving graces in this production. As the story unfolded, we got closer and closer to her with stunning solo dances and great interaction with the various characters around her. Poise, elegance, youth and an immensely expressive face matched her fantastic balletic skills. Such a shame that Romeo was so expressively bland beside her. Also, the character of her nurse, Ekaterina Lebedeva, was wonderfully played and possibly one of the best performers of the night, alongside Mercutio, even though she played a fairly minor role. She had great presence and depth of character and produced many reactions from the audience.

The setting was fittingly designed in early 20th century art style with elements of cubism which neatly matched the music and choreography with elements from the same time period. This travelling group relies on large and impressive back drops to set each scene and props were fairly simple but effective. Each act certainly improved in audience engagement but as we prepared for the emotionally charged end, a singular scene was choreographed in such a way that it destroyed completely the impact of this tragedy:

After Juliet takes her sleeping potion and is thought to be dead, Romeo has a fateful dream. He does not know what has happened to her yet, but he sees Death and also Mercutio and Tybald – both dead by now – seem to take her against her will in a nightmare and premonition. This small scene is usually very successful in building the tension and emotion around the impending double tragedy, a Greek-chorus like moment. But, for some bizarre reason, Moscow City Ballet decided to change this dream scene. Instead, Juliet lies alone on her bed, having faked her death, and Romeo suddenly appears and then lies down on the floor. Juliet gets up from her sleep and goes to Romeo and tries to wake him, but he does not wake and she reacts as if he is dead. This singular action creates obvious confusion throughout the audience. Someone beside me mutters – “she obviously hasn’t taken enough poison”. Others question – is Romeo dead now? It was not obvious at all that this was a dream scene and it was certainly not obvious what was going on. Eventually, yes - death characters come and Mercutio and Tybald all torment poor Juliet who eventually goes back to sleep. During this, Romeo lies motionless. He could be dead, he could be sleeping. It isn’t clear but by this point we have simply stopped caring and this was evident from comments from the audience as we left the theatre.

All in all, this was a flawed and disappointing performance with seriously misguided artistic direction and a dreadful orchestra which let down the talent and efforts of the men and women on stage who were the only saving grace. Perhaps this was simply a bad night for the performers – any professional company can experience that, but coupled with a confusing narrative around the deaths of Romeo and Juliet, this production of Romeo and Juliet was one I won’t forget for the wrong reasons.

Reviewer - Aaron Loughrey
on - 17/1/19

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