Romeo and Juliet

State Theatre, Arts Centre, Melbourne (Australian Ballet)


The freshness and originality we have come to expect in a Graeme Murphy ballet permeates this new and exciting production of Romeo and Juliet.

Murphy has thoroughly internationalised the tragic tale, achieved through time warps and place warps. The conventional medieval European townscape of the first scene morphs into an Indian bazaar for the fatal duels involving Tybalt and Mercutio, while Friar Lawrence is converted to a Buddhist holy man with a support group of Hare Krishna monks, and the final tomb is an open-air burial place in the desert.

It’s an intriguing approach, although I’d personally prefer a consistency of theme. A Bollywood Romeo and Juliet, fine, or an east Asian R & J, but the mixture of these elements can be distracting. (Indeed, when it became clear that Juliet’s spiritual advisor was a Buddhist rather than a Catholic friar, I couldn’t help reflect that problems lay ahead given that cremation is the conventional Eastern funeral rite!)

Gerard Manion’s sets and Akira Isogawa’s costumes are simply magnificent, with unparalleled variety given the global nature of the scenes. The Indian bazaar design elicits spontaneous applause. Damien Cooper’s lighting and Jason Lam’s projections are impressive in both their subtlety and surprises, including the disintegrating moon.

Murphy’s concept has many startling and effective elements. The opening moments of the production portray the lovers contained within a large seashell which is suddenly split asunder. A gritty street scene has nasty business going on in alleyways, and murder on the bridge. The death of Mercutio becomes a calculated killing rather than the consequence of a duel. Figuring in death sequences is a Grim Reaper figure most effectively in the dispatch of the servant who never makes it to Romeo’s city of exile. An Indian wedding procession adds some joy.

Undercurrents of violence break out everywhere. Particularly shocking is the aggression within the Capulet clan, as shown by their behaviour at the ball. Yet the enormity of the slaughter of the Capulets and Montagues with piles of bodies in tumbrils seemed rather overdone, more fitting for a battle scene than urban gang warfare or family feuds.

Nicolette Fraillon brings out a confident, rich sound from Orchestra Victoria, emphasising in particular Prokofiev’s contrasting brass and string work, together with beautiful woodwind support and dynamic timpani and percussion sound.

Leanne Stojmenov is an absolutely lovely Juliet, capturing with grace and style the complex dimensions of the young Capulet, from her early charm and innocence through the palpable passion of her love for Romeo, her distress and agitation at the prospect of an arranged marriage and the depth of her distress at the final betrayal Fate served up for her.

Daniel Gaudiello is a manly and capable Romeo, showing strength and gentleness. The emotional highlight for me was the balcony scene pas de deux. The interaction between the lovers to Prokofiev’s gorgeous music (surely the best ballet music of the 20th century) is almost painfully beautiful.

The comedy capers of Romeo’s companions (danced and even cycled by Calvin Hannaford and Yosvani Ramos) give a delightful relief to the more serious themes. Ramos as Mercutio is particularly impressive and an audience favorite.

Chengwu Guo as Tybalt injects a real nastiness into the character, while Ben Davis is a suitably disappointed Paris. Jarryd Madden and Miwako Kubota as the senior Capulets and Elizabeth Hill as the nurse each dance their parts with confidence. Other soloists and the corps are equally splendid, and the overall effect is a credit to the dancers’ skills and energy and to those of Graeme Murphy and creative associate Janet Vernon.

— John Henningham
(Performance seen: Thu 22nd September 2011)