The best investment a ballet company can make is to hire the brightest available creative talent to lay down repertory that will last. Rudolf Nureyev is remembered for his stage charisma more than choreography, but the 1977 Romeo and Juliet he made for the Festival Ballet, now English National Ballet, is still the most lustrous jewel in its crown. And what better time, now that the Royal Ballet has flogged its Kenneth MacMillan version almost to death, for ENB to bring it out and see how it glitters? The thing that most obviously marks out this version is its stiff technical demands of the male lead. Within minutes of Prokofiev's opening bars, Romeo has launched into the first of many substantial solos packed with the kind of Soviet-showcase steps Nureyev excelled in. Delicate brisé jumps and swaggering cabrioles come intercut with flashing footbeats, the whole package moulded in long, poetic phrases a tough call when the guy's had no chance to establish character. To his credit, Yosvani Ramos went from nought to 60 faster than you could say "codpiece". Here is already a Romeo prone to being carried away by his own flowery eloquence.
The surprise of Nureyev's re-telling is how close it runs to the Shakespeare text, not just in spirit but in the logistical details that ballet versions often ditch in the belief that we all know the plot well enough. Nureyev, reading the play in a language not his own, assumed no such thing, and carefully includes pivotal scenes such as Romeo's time in exile, and the failure of Friar Lawrence's message to reach him. In the same spirit of faithfulness, Nureyev also ventures into striking symbolic imagery, translating Juliet's words about Death taking her maidenhead into a grim little scene with a ghoul.
But if it were only about textual accuracy, the ballet would be no more than a dry shadow of the plot and the less successful versions are just that: an unreflective homage to romantic love. Even MacMillan's production (which Nureyev knew well) is stronger on the lovers than the crowd scenes. Nureyev's achievement is to show the tragedy as part of a wider social malaise. Our first sight of his Verona - beyond Ezio Frigerio's handsome set, all clean imposing brickwork - is of a cart carrying corpses, victims of plague. His street people don't fight with swords, but with fists and teeth. Women brawl as often as the men.
The effect of this moral maze is to make Juliet's innocence look short-lived. Even her nurse appears in flagrante with a male servant of the Capulet house. On Tybalt's death, Juliet is the first on the street, snatching up the fatal weapon and hiding it in her skirt for later use. In short, strongly performed by a company whose heart is totally in it, this is a Romeo and Juliet that will keep its audiences talking into the night - a properly argued piece of theatre that just happens to work through dance.
'Romeo and Juliet': London Coliseum, WC2 (0870 160 2832), 11-15 Jan 2005Reuse content