Those of you who know me well will be aware that I have always had rather middle-aged taste – be it in music, clothes, or parties. I much prefer a pub where you can chat to a club, I listen to radio 4, and I like to be in bed by 10:30 on a school night. So, it may come as a surprise that until recently I’d never been to the ballet (or at least, not to my memory – I might have been taken to the Nutcracker as a child, but it didn’t have a huge impact on me).
Last week, as part of my ongoing indoctrination into the London circle – that middle-class behemoth of OxBridge graduates, dinner parties and over-priced cooking utensils – I went to see Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. The Royal Ballet’s revival of Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography (first staged fifty years ago), has had excellent reviews, and I was very excited.
I will start by saying that I was not disappointed. It was beautiful, fundamentally. The bulk of the score would not have felt out of place in a film like Brief Encounter (which famously featured the Second Symphony of Prokofiev’s contemporary, Rachmaninoff), and was perfect for the first flushes of Romeo and Juliet’s romance. Likewise the Dance of the Knights (Montagues and Capulets), could comfortably have been used as entrance music for a rhythmic Darth Vader, and did amazing things to the atmosphere.
Everyone involved in the production should be hugely proud. Sets, whilst simple, where effective and costumes were well balanced between renaissance finery and minimalism allowing for the huge range of movements needed by the dancers. The Orchestra was excellent, and the dancers… The dancers were in another world.
But despite all this, I remain unconvinced.
Time for a confession. Though I know Romeo and Juliet as a play first and foremost, the only complete version I have seen is the Baz Luhrmann film (I know, I am working on it). Both Luhrmann and Prokofiev provide soundtracks (though they are almost as far removed from one another as is possible). The huge difference is, of course, that where Luhrmann maintain’s Shakespeare’s script, the Royal Ballet entirely strips away all language, replacing it with MacMillan’s choreography.
Words have always done things to me – certain hymns and poems hit me. Parts of stories stay with me – phrases, quotes, snatches of songs. At its most basic, language is an artistic medium no different from music, dance or sculpture, but words seem to have a particular value in developing stories. Words drive character development, they give shades of nuance and ambiguity to actions and places. In contrast, the ballet, though amazing, struggled to provide this detailed narrative. Characters like Paris were driven to the periphery; Friar Laurence lost his place as a voice of reason and caution.
And yet, many things came across brilliantly: the bustle of the Verona market, Juliet’s shy response to the first advances of Paris, Lord Capulet and Tybalt arguing over whether to politely welcome Romeo to the party or forcibly eject him, Romeo’s unwillingness to fight Tybalt once related to him through marriage. It is astounding what can be done through choreography.
I am sure I would be far less aware of the limitations of the production if I weren’t comparing it to a play – they are of course, entirely different mediums. I am fine reading and watching different versions of the King Arthur legend, but Shakespeare is definitive. I cant help thinking of one as an adaptation of the other, and an adaptation which fails to provide the same depth to the story.
And more than that, some things simply don’t come across as well in dance as in dialogue. Aggression, in particular, suffers when set to music. Don’t get me wrong, the fights were beautiful, but real, impassioned conflict is not, and the opening fight between Montague and Capulet suffered for this. Similarly, deaths were too overblown (the exception being Paris’ death, which seemed overly abrupt), undermining their emotional impact and making them almost a parody.
Then again, the various responses to deaths provide some of the most stunning moments in the work. The devastation wrought by death was inescapable, be it that of Romeo to the death of Mercutio and later (apparently) Juliet, or Lady Capulet to both her daughter and her close kinsman, Tybalt.
Even in those most emotionally fraught moments, however (and despite a score from one of the great composers of the last century), I didn’t tear up. I suppose part of that is unfamiliarity with the medium. I need to know it better to appreciate the emotions being conveyed, so I will just have to go again, ideally to something I cant compare to a different medium (Swan Lake is on the cards for next year). Still, I can’t help thinking that, while the ballet is abstractly beautiful, if I had to chose to between plays and ballet for the rest of my days, I would come down on the side of the words. Thankfully, that’s not a choice I have to make.