Mark Morris: Romeo and Juliet @ Barbican Theatre, London

choreographed by
Mark Morris
As one of the best-loved ballets in the mainstream repertoire, we may think we know Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet pretty well.

But until now nobody has seen it performed to the composer’s original music complete with happy ending.

Following research by American professor Simon Morrison, the Mark Morris Dance Group uses the ‘recovered’ 1935 score (with an extended title) to reveal an alternative version of this popular work. It is longer, with different orchestration and, yes, amazingly, the two eponymous lovers do not die at the end.
While it is a laudable idea to restore Prokofiev’s original vision before he was forced to change it by the Soviet authorities, is it actually better than the familiar version? I am not convinced.

While musically (thanks to fine playing by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Stefan Asbury) it sounds fresh and lively, dramatically the extra length adds some unnecessary padding to the story (especially the dances by three groups bearing Paris’s wedding present gifts to Juliet’s parents), while having the lovers living happily ever after undermines the tragic intensity of the piece.

Nonetheless, Mark Morris best known of course for his modern-dance works has created a highly accessible if rather conventional ballet, with a few of his own characteristically quirky touches. The quarrel between the Montagues and the Capulets is nicely expressed in the ensemble scenes in Verona town square, with the feuding factions provoking each other with aggressive body language like rival football gangs spoiling for a fight, broken up by the peaceful intervention of the Prince’s stately retinue. The duel between Mercutio and Tybalt (both played by women) is the dramatic high point of the show, with Mercutio carrying on his flamboyant play-acting all the way to death.

The masked ball scene is also very well done, with the menace of the Dance of the Knights and the forceful way in which Paris manipulates Juliet into a prison-like stance contrasting strongly with the sweet lyricism of her pas de deux with Romeo, both obviously head over heels in love. And their post-coital wedding night scene with Romeo naked and Juliet topless produces a much more erotic frisson than usual: the pair have discovered sex as well as romance.

Within a period setting, with Allen Moyer’s wooden-panelled design containing model buildings representing medieval Verona, the dancers perform with well-choreographed precision. Rita Donahue gives a very convincing portrait of Juliet evolving from girlish innocence to womanly sensuality, while David Leventhal’s Romeo is certainly graceful but lacks a bit of passion. Amber Darragh’s strutting Mercutio, full of bravado and braggadocio, steals the show with a humorous and ultimately poignant performance, Bradon McDonald’s Paris is more macho than gentlemanly and Lauren Grant’s sprightly Nurse makes the most of her comic moments.

Those looking for something more radical in Morris’s choreography will be disappointed but this is clear and elegant storytelling. And although the idea of letting the lovers live seems to owe more to Prokofiev’s fervent Christian Science beliefs than dramatic rationale, the beautiful coda in which Romeo and Juliet dance enrapt, alone beneath the stars, suggests that they are in a different world anyway.

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