Images of Romeo and Juliet

Ballet Preljocaj | Sadler's Wells, London
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Maybe it would be better if Angelin Preljocaj gave his treatment of Prokofiev's Shakespeare ballet a different title: say, "Images of Romeo and Juliet". Then audiences would have less reason to be startled by how different this is from any other production of Romeo and Juliet.

Maybe it would be better if Angelin Preljocaj gave his treatment of Prokofiev's Shakespeare ballet a different title: say, "Images of Romeo and Juliet". Then audiences would have less reason to be startled by how different this is from any other production of Romeo and Juliet.

We do still see a pair of lovers whose happiness is prevented by the society they live in, but now the enemy is a tyrannical government rather than a family feud. He is one of the homeless, so I am not sure how he gets to be at the ball where she falls for him. She goes for him in a big way, throwing off her little frock when she comes to meet him in the garden and spending most of the evening in her bra and panties.

Which brings me to the point that one of the ballet's biggest strengths is the powerful sexuality of the duets. No surprise that their bedroom scene takes place actually on the bed, whereas most versions of the ballet have them clothed and upright. Note, though, that for some reason (stylisation, perhaps) they are soon accompanied behind by four more couples, who echo their movements, dressed in flesh-coloured tights.

Stylisation is prominent also in the fights at the beginning of the ballet. The men (some in black leather uniforms, others in working clothes) face each other and express their anger in jumps, straight up and down or whirling in a circle; they do also push one another to the ground but then rise and repeat the whole process several times in dance patterns. How odd that while conventional ballet choreographers try (usually none too successfully) for realism here, Preljocaj the modernist makes it more formal - and with strong effect.

There is not just one nurse, but a pair of clones in black and white. To an extent they seem sometimes more like warders, yet they connive at the wedding, and their deliberately jerky movements are often funny - which fits the music well, in both its stiff abruptness and its humour. A puzzle, however, is why Juliet decides to feign death, since there are no parents or Count Paris pressing her to marry. Yet since she is going to do it, Preljocaj's device of a symbolic red cloth wrapped around her is more striking than the customary drugged bottle.

You will gather that this Romeo and Juliet is odd, even weird. Yet I for one am not going to complain about reducing the length of Prokofiev's heavy-handed score by drastic cuts, so that with no intermission (and even with some taped interpolations - street noises and unintelligible announcements) the show takes only 90 minutes. Enki Bilal's setting, constricted by a high, rough wall, works well.

So do the dancers, led by Aurelie Lobin and Sylvain Groud on opening night (another cast appears from today). And the end is powerfully affecting, as the lovers in turn try to revive one another by nuzzling the other like an animal, then finally die clenched together on a chair while the tyrant Tybalt walks sadly, thwartedly away.

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