What a change is here

DANCE Romeo and Juliet Ballets de Monte-Carlo Ballet de Lyon
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Was Lady Capulet a widow? Not in Shakespeare's play, nor any previous version I have seen of the Prokofiev ballet, but Jean-Christophe Maillot shows her thus in his new production for Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo. And why not? She is the driving force of the family anyway, and dispensing with her husband helps if you want to tell the story in dance not mime. All the swordplay has vanished too: the fights use handgrips and aggressive dance steps instead. Starkly simple, mainly monochrome designs by Ernest Pignon-Ernest and Jerome Kaplan complement the bold approach.

Past choreographers have seemed heavily circumscribed by Prokofiev's marmoreal score, written in the 1930s to match a scenario developed by Soviet producers while socialist realism reigned. On the whole, the composer has imposed the dramatic pattern.

At last, however, the kind of reinterpretation applied lately to Tchaikovsky's ballet classics (by Matthew Bourne, Mats Ek, Mark Morris etc) is beginning to affect Prokofiev. Nureyev started it with his radical Cinderella in Paris, where the heroine became not the belle of the ball but a film star.

Then Angelin Preljocaj, staging R&J for the Ballet de Lyon, transported the star-crossed lovers from medieval Verona to a grim contemporary dictatorship, where society rather than their families held them apart. Turning the duels into street fights between soldiers and the homeless worked well enough, but Juliet in a pointed Madonna bra, and a multiple echo of the bedroom duet by extra couples, looked arbitrary innovations. No wonder he backed down into a more abstract setting when reviving it for his own company's Paris season just completed.

Maillot's Monte-Carlo staging is both bolder and more tactful. He goes too far in making Friar Laurence a leading character, his Shakespearian function as a prime meddler extended by letting him appear (with two acolytes, and shaved heads their fashion motif) in almost every scene as inciter or observer. He even forecasts the coming deaths with a puppet show. The theory is that he represents the struggle between good and evil, chance and fate. If, like me, you cannot buy that, his interventions grow tiresome.

But other changes work much better. Some discreet cuts prevent the ballet, for once, from feeling over-long: Mercutio's self-consciously jokey dying solo has gone, so has much of the repetitiveness from Act 3. Tybalt not only has a heavy relationship with Lady C, but is keen on Rosaline too, which motivates his quarrel with Romeo.

Above all, transferring Juliet's childlike entry music to her nurse, and the childish behaviour with it, leaves Juliet eager for love from the start. In this version it is she who draws attention to her breasts with a gesture indicating "I'm not a child any more", thus eliminating the puzzling moment in other stagings where either mother or nurse points out what the girl must have noticed for herself already.

And when love comes, the balcony scene shows her and Romeo completely absorbed with each other in a long rhapsodic duet avoiding the solo virtuosity of some treatments. Memories of this (shown filmed on the backcloth) stir in Juliet's mind as she dies at the end, effectively suggesting hope of reunion in another life.

Bernice Coppieters makes a strong, touching Juliet, with Chris Roelandt her puppyishly devoted Romeo (tellingly, she slaps his face hard when they meet after Tybalt's death, before resting her head on his chest and then pulling him into bed). But with Coppieters as its focus, this is primarily an ensemble production that throws welcome new light on an over- familiar ballet subject.

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