Rudolf Nureyev’s version of Romeo and Juliet – restaged by English National Ballet, the company for which it was first created in 1977 – reads like a cross between Shakespeare and Roger Corman. It’s an odd mix, but an interesting one. Take the prologue, for example. It’s generally left out in ballet stagings, but Nureyev, sticking to the playtext, includes it to foreshadow the themes of fate and misfortune, and renders it in overwrought symbols: masked goblin dice-players, a baleful funeral procession that makes you think not just of death, but of the Black Death. The ballroom scene, with its crimson draperies and lugubrious manners, recalls the grandiloquent gothic style of Corman’s Masque of the Red Death, and serves, very effectively, to embody the oppressively conformist society Shakespeare portrayed.
Nureyev’s following of the text is sometimes cack-handed: the line “death, not Romeo, take my maidenhead” is acted out as a vampire figure coming to Juliet’s bed. Mostly, though, it means that there’s a little too much going on: bawdy asides, street entertainers, vision scenes. There’s a little too much of everything, in fact – scenery, costumes, even dancing. The choreography is often beguiling – the gallumphing horseplay of Romeo’s gang, a rapturous love duet – but too often the stage is cluttered by the dancing. We lose touch with the emotional narrative.
Interestingly, what emerges most strongly is not a love story. As Romeo, Vadim Muntagirov is exquisitely poised, but does not yet convince as a lover – the bedroom scene is awkward. Daria Klimentová’s Juliet has as much passion as poise, expressed most fiercely when her parents force her to wear the Capulet ballgown and dance with Paris, to whom she has been promised. What most motivates this Juliet is not love, but rebellion.