Romeo & Juliet – simplicity lost in translation

There’s a place for us,
A time and place for us.
Hold my hand and we’re halfway there.
Hold my hand and I’ll take you there
Some day,

In West Side Story, Tony and Maria imagined another place, far away from the brittle reality of Manhattan in the 1950s.

So, too, does Shakespeare’s Romeo imagine another idyllic place as he visualises the paradise in which his lover reigns:

Heaven is here
Where Juliet lives, and every cat and dog
And little mouse, every unworthy thing,
Live here in heaven and may look on her…

The notion that lovers are transformed and transported by their passion is underscored by the lyrics of West Side Story and the poetry of Shakespeare, and it’s the foundation stone of Graeme Murphy’s new Romeo & Juliet, one that takes place in the here and now of Verona and in imagined, unrelated locations.

In his program note, Murphy explains that Romeo & Juliet is “a tale for all times. Love transforms and transcends, opening a door to reveal a different world, where time bends and stretches and landscapes appear both familiar and foreign”.

His ballet follows the traditional plot but, with his collaborators Akira Isogawa (costumes), Gerard Manion (sets), Damien Cooper (lighting) and Jason Lam (projections), Murphy has devised a Jules Verne journey around the world (in just over two hours) that opens in Verona, but moves forward to a palatial room dripping with both frozen and dry ice, to Juliet’s balcony above an orchard garden, to a bridge under which a rowboat ferries Benvolio and Mercutio, to a Japanese temple, an Indian bazaar and finally to bed of skulls representing a crypt within a stylised desert.

At critical moments in the story, the lovers appear to imagine the more exotic locations. In the Indian bazaar, for example, Juliet is seen watching the action from an upstage balcony.

Paradoxically, though, these “different worlds” are real enough to allow the narrative of Romeo & Juliet to play out in the usual way. Mercutio is killed, Romeo kills Tybalt, Juliet takes the sleeping potion, and the lovers commit suicide.

So we are not in fantasy land where anything can happen anywhere before the protagonists wake up from their reverie.

Nor is the whole story built on a dream, or on the romantic pursuit of an imagined creature, as we can see in La Sylphide or Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Murphy has explained that away from the sanctuary of Juliet’s bedroom – decorated with a floral arch based on a wallpaper pattern (Osborne and Little’s “Chatterton” – as carefully credited in the program notes) – “the world is swirling around them”. The lovers could be anywhere and the imagined locations appear at transformative moments in the plot or because the intensity of romantic love makes the world look different.

Murphy is hardly the first to time and place shift. We all know that Shakespeare, especially, is fair game for reinvention. Richard III has been set in a fascist state in the 1930s while The Taming of the Shrew has become Kiss Me Kate.

Chekhov too, moves around. Not so long ago, Uncle Vanya lived in the outback in the Sydney Theatre Company’s popular production with an all-star cast.

One day, perhaps, we will see an Onegin that begins in Thailand, for example, then moves to the north pole and on to Ireland. Or a radical interpretation of The Three Sisters. They live in Buenos Aires but yearn for Kansas.

Would such transformations be driven by the motives and intentions of the characters, or would the meanderings happen for no particular reason other than for stylistic diversion?

Murphy has no need to justify his scenario, and no doubt hopes that his new work for the Australian Ballet will speak for itself.

How does it speak then?

In my view, not as clearly and as movingly as his two previous full length works for the Australian Ballet, Nutcracker and Swan Lake.

Murphy’s Nutcracker, devised with the late designer, Kristian Fredrikson, is a ballet about ballet. The heroine, Clara, is a Russian ballerina who loses her lover in the 1917 revolution, sails to Australia with the Ballets Russes, and makes her final appearance in the Borovansky Ballet, itself formed by a former Ballets Russes dancer who settled in Australia.

His Swan Lake, another Fredrikson collaboration, is partly based on both the Diana-Charles-Camilla triangle but also refers to the psychology of Odette, whose betrayal by the Prince leads to her tragedy. With the intervention of her rival, she is incarcerated in a mental hospital.

Set in the early 20th century, the location could be Switzerland, and the doctor could be a Freudian therapist.

Murphy’s choreography for both ballets is danced to the Tchaikovsky scores but he uses them inventively, for example, in his Swan Lake, the traditional Act III black swan pas de deux music is transposed to his Act I scene in which Odette appear to lose her mind.

With Prokofiev’s prescriptive score for Romeo & Juliet, such juxtapositions would be difficult to manage.

As the critic, John Percival, wrote many choreographers have used the Prokofiev score, one or two with “disastrous results, but most with some success, since the music was written so meticulously to order that it imposes its own structure”.

Among the most successful were John Cranko’s R&J in 1962 and Kenneth MacMillan’s that followed three years later.

Discussing his own production, Murphy acknowledged these and other former productions as highly influential and hard to dismiss from the mind.

“There’s always an elephant in the room”, he said, “and it’s the ghost of Romeo & Juliets gone by”.

To re-imagine his own production he must have listened intently to the Prokofiev score, deciding, as he has said, that it “cleverly and wonderfully tells you what’s happened but it doesn’t tell you where you’re at. It’s not Italianesque that score. I think the score has that universality about it. That global and timeless feel. That’s my cue”.

In his imagination, the traditional marketplace scene, with all its Italian colour and revelry, became an Indian bazaar in which a wedding takes place, celebrated by a corps de ballet wearing costumes that blend Bollywood with La Bayadere.

Within this setting, Tybalt falls from a balcony to his death – through a canopy, held aloft by poles – on a pile of stacked oriental carpets. (Oddly enough Prokofiev hoped to include a Dance of the Carpet Sellers in his Romeo & Juliet score, according to the ballet’s first choreographer, Leonard Lavrovsky.)

Murphy’s Indian setting is not the first R&J story to take place in the sub continent. The tragic romance, Heer and Ranjha, follows the same narrative of young love, family honour and death by poison.

There are even film versions of the Heer and Ranjha story including a 2009 Bollywood production and a slightly earlier British Asian production set in Glasgow where Ranjha is a Muslim restaurant worker who is disowned by his faith.

Other locations in Murphy’s production are more difficult to understand, including a Japanese temple where a Holy Man represents Friar Laurence and a setting that might represent the Seine in the 1940s. A rowboat brings Romeo’s friends through a watery journey where they mimic swimming while above, bicyclists in head scarves weave around the stage.

A link to all the imagined places is a new character, a representation of death, known as the Prince of Darkness.

This figure, Murphy has said, “is extraordinarily important to me. He appears constantly, even right at the beginning”.

The archetypical man in black has many cinematic and theatrical precursors such as in the personification of death in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, the Byronic anti-hero, Onegin, and the wicked Stranger in black leather pants in the ballroom scene of Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake.

The Prince of Darkness of course is a metaphor for the way the lovers’ lives are torn apart by hatred, again underscored in this production by the floor in the bedroom turning eye-popping Halloween green, projections signifying stormy skies, and black bodies (dummies) that fall on the stage.

The multitude of detail and confusion of settings in Murphy’s new work tends to obscure the simplicity and raw impact of the tragedy.

The key word here is simplicity. Prokofiev himself explained that he had “taken special pains to achieve a simplicity [in the score] which will, I hope, reach the hearts of all listeners….”

An example of the power of simplicity shines through Antony Tudor’s Romeo & Juliet, choreographed in 1943 and much admired by the critics, Deborah Jowitt and Edward Denby.

Jowett wrote that Tudor’s ballet was set in “what might be compared to a continuous Botticelli frieze. There is an emphasis on elegant, agitated, fastidiously sensual flow rather than on volume…there is no blood, thunder, bombast; the action is drawn lightly over you like a veil while you sit in a state of almost febrile tension”.

Time, she wrote, is compressed into 42 hours and “space is defined and confined by the walls of Verona’s chambers, gardens, piazzas”.

And in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s “Romeo et Juliette the narrative is similarly streamlined. Maillot has explained that he wanted no barrier between the force of the story and the audience and as the critic, Patricia Boccadoro wrote: “There is no poison, there are no swords, [and] the decor with luminous white panels is resolutely modern and abstract”.

As for Murphy’s choreography itself, many of his trademark moves are here – the walking on bodies, the lift of a ballerina by four men so that she looks like the prow of a ship, intertwined arms, the circular movements of hands and heads and the intriguing use of one body as a support for the other, in this case when Juliet reclines on Romeo’s shins, his back, or the top of his leg bent in a kneeling position.

The wedding night pas de deux and the fooling of Mercutio and Benvolio in the Seine scene were choreographic highlights. On opening night, Daniel Gaudiello and Jacob Sofer gave outstanding and committed performances as Mercutio and Benvolio, played like two naughty schoolboys.

Murphy depicts Romeo, danced by Kevin Jackson, as gauche and puppy like in his ardour. This Romeo twice descends in sideways splits while his Juliet shows her happiness in girlish skips and bourrees.

Madeleine Eastoe’s Juliet had all the featherlight charm and naivete of her Odette in Murphy’s Swan Lake for which she deservedly won much praise around the world.

She was the right dancer for the first cast Juliet, but she had few of those still moments that tell us so much about the heroine’s inner struggle and reckless bravery.

Jarryd Madden made the most of his role as the Holy Man. The role itself is well developed, and so much more fulfilling for a dancer than the standard “walk, walk, gesture, bless”, dreariness of the traditional ballet interpretations of Friar Laurence.

I am sure Murphy has established an internal logic for his story, and is confident that the work needs no further interpretation than he has already given.

But for me – and on one viewing only – the tension and simplicity of the tragedy was blurred by excess. The tale however, is so strong and the score so powerful that its magic will work for new audiences, and perhaps the young audiences that the ballet world needs so desperately.

The proof of R&J’s perennial allure is already there, in Australia at least. The Melbourne season is sold out and no doubt the Sydney season will be too.