State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
Thrillingly balancing dangerous drama and rapturous romance, John Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet enthrals once again in this grandly staged, meticulously recreated hallmark production from The Australian Ballet.
Introducing the premiere of the revived production, artistic director David Hallberg spoke of the value of the heritage of the Australian Ballet as they approach their 60th anniversary. With this 1974 production not having been staged for 19 years, the full company would be making their debut in Cranko’s Romeo & Juliet that evening, the lone exception being Steven Heathcote. Hallberg drew particular attention to Callum Linnane and Sharni Spencer, artists whom he had promoted to the top rank of principal artist at the start of the year and who would be making their debuts in the title roles on this night.
Such focus upon on Linnane and Spencer proved very well deserved, with the pair soaring through the challenging roles with charisma and grace to spare.
Linnane takes Romeo from impetuous lad, flirting with the fair Rosaline, to ardent lover, transformed by the immediacy of his all-consuming passion for Juliet. Linnane portrays Romeo as the clear alpha male of his troop, such that there can be no doubt of his impulse for revenge upon Tybalt and his calamitous response to finding Juliet in the crypt.
Spencer swiftly casts aside Juliet’s childish ways to embrace her burgeoning womanhood. Delightful as a young person in love, Spencer really comes into her own in Juliet’s desperate grief, heartbreakingly showing the dear girl’s reckless willingness to take drastic action to escape an arranged marriage to Paris and then later to take her own life in the absence of Romeo.
Blessed with three heavenly pas de deux, Linnane and Spencer capture soaring passion and fully realised love. Spencer is elevated like a weightless doll in lifts that range from sweetly playful to maturely grounded. The pair are beautifully matched in their share talent for communication through dance, gifts that are all the more magnified when combined.
As the first swoon-worthy bars of Prokofiev’s richly textured score ring out across the State Theatre, the audience is immediately transported in time, place and feeling. Guest conductor Jonathan Lo helms Orchestra Victoria in a finely detailed musical performance that would readily stand alone as a concert hall attraction. Particular dramatic oomph bellows out from the tubas, and it is, of course, a delight to hear the mandolins.
Originally created at Stuttgart Ballet in 1962, Cranko’s production of Romeo and Juliet was first staged at The Australian Ballet in 1974 by then artistic director Anne Woolliams, who had been Cranko’s ballet mistress. As well as drawing on the experience of principal coach Fiona Tonkin and ballet master Heathcote, the dancers have benefited from the input of guest répétiteurs Yseult Lendvai and Mark Kay. The lavish set and costume designs of Jürgen Rose have been lovingly restored for this very welcome return season.
There is a sense of brisk urgency to the storytelling with the numerous scenes unfolding in swift succession. Aided by our shared knowledge of the timeless Shakespeare source material, distinct characters are quickly and impactfully established. With the skill of the company at large on display, the entire village and court take on a strong sense of inner life. This rich sense of community gives palpable weight to the tragic deaths of young bucks Mercutio and Tybalt.
Rose’s set designs are striking not just in their grandeur but also in their ingenuity. A particularly impressive transition follows Romeo and Juliet’s wedding, with the action returning to the ebullience of the marketplace with the swiftness of a movie. Lighting designer Jon Buswell deftly avoids over-lighting the period settings, achieving particular success with night scenes for Juliet’s balcony and Juliet’s funeral procession.
Rose’s intricate, wonderfully theatrical costumes clearly establish house and rank, galvanising the storytelling character to great effect.
Carrying weapons of death and yet prancing about like the carefree adolescents they are, Romeo and friends impart a lively beginning, the trio also dancing an entertaining series of moves when approaching the ball.
Youthful exuberance likewise characterises the majority of act two, with the merry townsfolk engaged in the liveliest of communal dances. Merriment reaches a new high with the arrival of a vibrant troupe of acrobatic jesters, expertly led by Brodie James in a wonderfully characterful performance.
In splendid form, Brett Chynoweth steals many a scene as the sprightly Mercutio. A highlight is Mercutio’s solo to distract the ball guests from following Romeo. And his death scene is to die for.
Cameron Holmes makes for a nimble, puckish Benvolio. Christopher Rodgers-Wilson carries a dignified presence as the princely Paris, whose unfortunate demise is all the more tragic for Rodgers-Wilson’s elegant performance.
Playing against type seen in his vast lineage of Princes, Adam Bull brings a brutish presence to Tybalt, portraying a thuggish noble who clearly believes that might is right, until he encounters someone mightier in the grief-stricken Romeo.
Acting to the brims of her oversized headwear, Amy Harris cuts a fine figure as Lady Capulet, the mania of her devastated reaction to the death of Tybalt bringing act two to a powerful conclusion.
Heathcote carries the noble mantle of Lord Capulet with trademark flair. Stephen Baynes contrasts the feeble yet powerful Duke of Mantua with the tenderly compassionate Friar Laurence. Terese Power brings an endearing warmth to Juliet’s Nurse, making the Nurse’s discovery of Juliet’s seemingly lifeless body all the more heart rending.
Romeo and Juliet brings The Australian Ballet’s year to a highly impressive conclusion. Balletomanes of Melbourne and Sydney are in for a decadent feast.
Romeo and Juliet plays at State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne until 1 October 2022. For tickets, click here.
Romeo and Juliet will be live-streamed on Tuesday 18 October. For tickets, click here.
Romeo and Juliet plays at Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House 1-21 December 2022. For tickets, click here.
The Romeo and Juliet Melbourne cast sheet can be read online.
Photos: #1-5, #7, #9-10 Jeff Busby; #6, #8 Rainee Lantry