The return of John Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet to The Australian Ballet after nearly 20 years is a reminder of how few narrative ballets surpass it for range and complexity. Cranko’s version of Shakespeare’s tragedy, made in 1962 for Stuttgart Ballet, has been in TAB’s repertoire since 1974 and until 2003 was staged relatively regularly. Not all the choreography has stood the test of time. Some, including me, marginally prefer Kenneth MacMillan’s superlative R&J. Nevertheless, Cranko’s production is rightly one of the most highly regarded in the field and its emotional and visual impact is as strong as ever. This is grand, passionate, bold, thrilling theatre driven by Prokofiev’s imperishable music.
It’s been a while since the company was challenged in this way, not that you could tell as they vividly embodied the rough-and-tumble Verona marketplace, the Capulets’ formal ball, lively carnival time and the deadly rivalry between Verona’s two leading families, “alike in dignity”, as Shakespeare put it, and alike in the hot-headed drawing of swords. That pulsating energy in movement and music drove the tragedy inexorably onwards.
It goes without saying all of this year’s star-crossed lovers were new to their roles. (Well, new to Cranko in the case of British-born principal artist Joseph Caley, who has MacMillan’s Romeo in his rep.) The viewing of four casts showed a company in strikingly good form from top to bottom, a happy state of affairs that couldn’t necessarily have been guaranteed after stop-start performing in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic and the recent big uptick in COVID-19 infections.
Each of the four pairs of lovers I saw (in all there were seven Romeos and five Juliets across the Melbourne and Sydney seasons) had a distinctively different flavour. In the first cast (seen in Melbourne on October 7) it was a study in opposites. You could see Sharni Spencer’s Juliet become a woman overnight, a tempering influence for Callum Linnane’s reckless, impetuous Romeo. Open-hearted Joseph Caley – a great addition to the ranks – wore his boy-next-door heart on his sleeve and was a safe harbour for feather-light Benedicte Bemet, who overflowed with the tumultuous emotions of the very young (December 15 in Sydney) . He was earth to her air. Nathan Brook and Dimity Azoury (December 10) were intensely romantic, he steadfast and noble and she radiating warmth and joy. Brett Chynoweth and Ako Kondo (December 16) were profoundly connected with one another from the start while being alert to the world around them.
Each performance was memorable in its own way. Linnane has charisma to burn; Spencer has prima ballerina presence. Caley’s sweep and generosity of movement in the balcony pas de deux was breathtaking; Bemet was heartbreakingly inconsolable as she begged her parents not to make her marry Paris. When Romeo says goodnight to Juliet at the end of the balcony scene, Romeo is asked to do a chin-up on the balcony to enable a last kiss. Some Romeos did one, others did two. Brook did three. He and Azoury – she with her eager, expressive face and huge eyes – felt like soulmates. The tenderness was profoundly moving.
It was particularly gratifying to see Kondo back on stage from maternity leave, looking as if she’d never been away. With their clear, intelligent thinking Kondo and Chynoweth gave the most detailed account of the narrative. A brief glance here, a gesture there, choices of timing, degrees of emotion, subtle shifts in quality of movement: all were small stitches in the fabric of the piece that added texture to character and relationships.
Of the many other relationships crucial to the ballet – Juliet and her Nurse; Juliet and her parents; Juliet and Lord Paris, the man her parents wish her to marry; and so on – the one between Mercutio and Tybalt is paramount. Mercutio’s death at the hands of Tybalt and Romeo’s revenge throws fuel on to an already smouldering fire.
The company was able to dig deep through the ranks to find exceptionally strong antagonists. In the first cast, veteran principal artist Adam Bull’s Tybalt was the disdainful aristocrat absolutely certain of his standing in relation to fellow principal Chynoweth’s sharp-witted Mercutio. In the Caley-Bemet cast soloist Jake Mangakahia was a ticking time bomb with a vicious streak up against senior artist Marcus Morelli’s fascinatingly saturnine Mercutio. In the Brook-Azoury cast, coryphée Drew Hedditch emphasised Mercutio’s jester impulses while corps member Joseph Romancewicz’s physically imposing Tybalt was the super-confident big guy who could lord it over all the others.
All were excellent but senior artist Jarryd Madden as Tybalt and Cameron Holmes as Mercutio in the Chynoweth-Kondo cast led the pack. Holmes, still in the corps, is also a singer and actor who recently played the lead role of Jerry Mulligan in the Australian tour of the musical An American in Paris, cast as alternate to former New York City ballet star Robbie Fairchild. (Dimity Azoury was also in the show as alternate to female lead Leanne Cope.) Holmes’s Mercutio was the lad everyone adores, more fun than anybody else and perhaps feeling the pressure to be always on. Madden’s adamantine Tybalt turned up looking for Romeo, Mercutio couldn’t stop himself from needling and teasing and his fate was sealed. You could see that before the fight even started. Madden’s Tybalt was terrifying, the hardest of hard men. This was not someone you should try to make look foolish. As Mercutio went to his death, Tybalt watched the agonising throes with detachment, truly the Prince of Cats as he is described in Shakespeare’s play.
What else? Chynoweth’s Romeo, Holmes’s Mercutio and Morelli’s Benvolio (luxury casting indeed) looked wonderful together and fared best of all casts in the pre-party men’s trio. The gruelling double tours – they don’t stop coming – were fast, high and tightly landed by all three. The Lord Capulet of former principal artist and now ballet staff member Steven Heathcote was a distillation of decades of experience at the top of the tree. It’s always a treat to see him on stage. Heathcote was of course one of the Romeos in the 2003 season and, looking through old cast sheets, it was fun to see that principal artist Amy Harris, this year’s first-cast Lady Capulet, played the small role of Lady Montague in 2003 when she was in the corps.
Finally, the last performance of Romeo and Juliet in the Sydney season was also the last for Nicolette Fraillon as TAB music director after two decades in the role. Her influence on music-making and scholarship over such a sustained period has been transformative. Executive director Libby Christie also departs at the end of 2023 after a decade at the helm.
David Hallberg’s artistic directorship, now two years old, started a change of the guard after David McAllister’s 20-year reign. The transition to a completely new leadership team is now underway. Lissa Twomey has left the executive directorship of Bangarra Dance Theatre to take over from Christie and Hong Kong-born British conductor Jonathan Lo, music director of Northern Ballet in the UK, succeeds Fraillon. On the evidence of Romeo and Juliet – and let’s not forget the glorious Kunstkamer earlier in the year – they join a company unbowed by the pandemic and ready for anything.