UK Premiere of Romeo & Juliet, Royal Albert Hall, Polunin Ink.
Johan Kobborg’s production of Romeo & Juliet for Polunin Ink, and commissioned by Sergei Polunin, finally had its UK Premiere at the Royal Albert Hall, to a packed and enthusiastic house.
First performed in the Arena di Verona in 2019, its highly anticipated arrival on UK soil had had to be postponed because of the pandemic. The pulling power of this particular one-off performance was undoubtedly its star-crossed lovers, Polunin and Alina Cojocaru. The rest of the company comprised a number of very good freelance dancers. Kobborg’s version has been severely edited, characters have been omitted, running time is reduced to I hour 20 minutes, without an interval and Prokofiev’s score has been markedly cut and juggled. Ardent ballet goers who may have been exposed to numerous other versions such as those by Kenneth MacMillan, John Cranko and Rudolf Nureyev must accept that Kobborg has taken a different route and not tried to emulate them. He’s included some interesting and bold alternative storytelling. The resulting narrative, the paring down or absence of characters (Paris is a mere incidental presence) creates a scenario where the focus is almost entirely on the two principals alongside Mercutio and Tybalt. The pace makes it difficult for the cast to develop their roles with any depth – it’s all over so quickly. Short scenes and long black out pauses make it seem fragmented but there is plenty to enjoy too. David Umemoto’s striking, monolithic stage design – a movable structure that represents the street scenes, the balcony, the ballroom and the tomb scene – is very impressive and Konstantin Binkin’s lighting is truly excellent.
Kobborg has created passionate and choreographically pleasing pas de deux for the titular couple. The lifts, the flow, the drama is involving and believable. He’s also created some wonderful dancing for Mercutio (The Royal Ballet’s supremely talented Daichi Ikarachi) and Tybalt (Nikolas Gaifullin, also a terrific dancer and new to me). One of the highlights of the performance, in what would normally be Act II, was the fight scenes. While Mercutio didn’t seem to realise the seriousness of his situation, the fight between Romeo and Tybalt generated a real sense of impulse, urgency and made for compelling viewing. A surprise that worked well dramatically was having Juliet witness Romeo’s murder of Tybalt. Whilst it rather robbed Lady Capulet of her best moments, it portrayed with clarity that Juliet would have been horrified that Romeo could have committed such a violent act against a Capulet, particularly after their clandestine wedding.
Whilst Polunin has struggled to find favour in recent years, he certainly showed a return to form as the floppy-haired, impassioned Romeo. Beautiful high jumps, lines and brilliantly executed pirouettes complemented his attentive partnering of Cojocaru. No matter what has transpired in the interim since exiting The Royal Ballet and the formation of his production company – at this performance anyway, he had all the ingredients of a promising new chapter in his career. And if he is going to succeed, this is an appropriate vehicle for him. Cojocaru, at 40, is still believable as a teenage Juliet. She is slightly gawky in her reading of the role until she starts dancing of course, and then she brings all her exquisite poise to the fore.
Having learnt that the world premiere had been in Verona, a venue that holds 15,000 people, I had hoped that the Royal Albert Hall would prove ideal, but although I was sufficiently close to see all the action, I was still too far away to see clear facial expressions. On top of that, the huge bank of technicians directly in front of me was distracting and the stage seemed too small for the wonderfully expansive choreography. I am reliably informed that those seated in the arena could not see the feet. In conclusion, this writer at least, found Prokofiev’s magnificent score (recorded), hacked a step too far and at times over-amplified, but there were some wholly original, memorable passages of choreography and dancing. Where I think this production will succeed is for those audiences who are less well-versed in the three act versions. They can see some first rate dancers and have a taster of some real classical ballet in what is a challenging work.
By Deborah Weiss
All Photos by Ian Gavan