Left – Adam Bull and Lana Jones. Cover – Lana Jones and Adam Bull. Photos – Jeff Busby
Graeme Murphy’s new production of Romeo & Juliet is a visual delight. We gasped in awe as the curtain rose on the opening tableau – the lovers entwined within a conch shell, reminiscent of paintings of The Birth of Venus. From this entrancing start the scenes unfurl in subtle palettes of colour, notably mauve and emerald and silver. Juliet’s home – the icy domain of the Capulet family – is a constantly changing crystal palace, the colors and textures echoed in the extraordinary and beautiful costumes of designer Akira Isogawa.
Gerard Manion’s sets range across continents and religions, with Damien Cooper’s lighting and Jason Lam’s projection design enriching the stunning visuals. A golden background of desert hues illuminates the lovers’ secret marriage by a holy man. Within the temple, their union is sealed in an unforgettable radiant image, again using a circular embracing structure. With the action swinging between far-flung locations, narrative credibility is constantly being sacrificed for mood and dramatic effect. And yet the story is all the stronger for it, with powerful emotions underlined in visual imagery and dramatic tension heightened by starkly contrasted landscapes.
Prokofiev’s music is given a passionate and dynamic interpretation by Orchestra Victoria under the baton of Nicolette Fraillon. It is a challenging task for the conductor. With the roles of Romeo and Juliet performed by five couples over the season, the interpretation and timing changes every night. On Wednesday night, with Lana Jones and Adam Bull dancing, the orchestra’s timing was perfect.
Jones is an ethereal Juliet – light, fluid, and with the effervescence of young love. She is tiny, vulnerable and yet wonderfully hopeful in the face of opposition. In spite of constant badgering from her parents Lady Capulet (Rachel Rawlins) and Lord Capulet (Damien Welch) and the absurd Paris (Andrew Wright), her eyes are forever on Romeo, her source of joy and hope. It is a fine interpretation of Murphy’s choreography and a virtuoso performance that appears completely effortless.
Bull’s Romeo towers over the diminutive Jones, making them a rather mismatched couple. His proud and exuberant solo dancing tends to emphasise the difference. Where Jones is soft and flowing, Bull is taut, with extended limbs. Surely Romeo is young and supple, eager but inexperienced, like Juliet? Some of this innocence could have been captured to create a more realistic portrait of young love, particularly in the balcony scene. In contrast, the bedroom scene was moving, the passion softened by tenderness.
More convincing is Romeo’s love for his friends Mercutio and Benvolio, and his grief when Mercutio is killed. The two pranksters are delightful characters and add a welcome touch of hilarity to the desperate tale of star-crossed lovers. Chengwu Guo, who played Mercutio in this performance, is a quick-fire performer who uses the language of dance to tell perfectly executed jokes.
Minor roles are performed with great character, adding light, shade and humour to the story. The invented character of Death (Brett Simon) gives a frisson of dread to the unfolding tragedy. The fight scenes, with the exception of the first encounter in Verona between the Capulets and the Montagues, are performed with a sense of spontaneity, danger and realism.
Murphy, working with his creative associate Janet Vernon, excels here in the art of storytelling through visual imagery. The ballet soars beyond the confines of space and time and, although some of choreography stays too close to traditional forms, the huge emotional register of this mythical tale is expressed through ever-shifting visual metaphors and exquisite dancing.
The Australian Ballet presents
ROMEO & JULIET
Choreography Graeme Murphy | Music Sergei Prokofiev
Venue: the Arts Centre, State Theatre
Dates: 12 – 24 September, 2011
with Orchestra Victoria
Venue: Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Dates: 2 – 21 December, 2011
with Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra
Bookings: www.australianballet.com.au | 1300 369 741