Royal Swedish Ballet: Mats Ek’s Juliet and Romeo – hauntingly odd

Sadler’s Wells, London
Despite some rich choreography, this dark and intimate reworking of the classic tale fails to deliver on its initial promise

Mats Ek has always taken a radical line with the ballet repertory, and it’s clear from the title that his new Juliet and Romeo comes with maverick intent. But in contrast, say, with his visionary Giselle, Ek’s powers of reinvention feel more compromised here. At some moments he remints the story with imagery of aching intimacy and disconcerting darkness; at others he just tinkers, ineffectually, around the edges. Part of the problem may be his choice of music, a collage of Tchaikovsky extracts that rarely cohere into a credible musical or dramatic world.

Yet if the ballet disappoints overall, the first half exudes a thrilling promise. Ek sets his story in a suspended time zone, somewhere between old Verona and the present day. There are no sword fights or bustling market scenes, just a maze of stark black walls that provide hiding places for marauding gangs, and are policed at night by guards on motorised scooters.

As time is realigned, so are the characters. Some of the women are given stronger roles, especially the Nurse, who is danced by the marvellous Ana Laguna as a figure of ancient matriarchal powers. She sees and judges everything, and is a lioness in defence of Mariko Kida’s Juliet, a similarly potent character who mixes wilfulness with self absorption and wide-eyed curiosity, qualities that colour her duets with Romeo.

Nuzzling, playful and drenched in wonder, the choreography for the two lovers embodies a language of discovery that Ek makes beautifully specific to them.

There’s more richness of detail in the dynamics between Romeo and his friends, the emollient, jokey Benvolio and the dangerously volatile Mercutio.

Yet, excellent as Ek can be in setting up character, his storytelling falls apart in the second act. Tybalt is too sketchy and muted a presence, and the killing of Mercutio is oddly incidental. The decision to ignore the sleeping potion twist speeds up the plot but denies Juliet her pivotal moment of choice, and diminishes the horror of the lovers’ deaths.

Only at the end does Ek rise to tragedy. The final image, in which all of Verona lies down in mourning for Romeo and Juliet, raising their legs in imitation of the lovers final pose, may be one of the oddest images you will see on stage. But it is vintage Ek in its power to haunt, to unsettle and to move.

• Until 27 September. Box office: 0844 412 4300. Venue: Sadler’s Wells, London


Judith Mackrell

The GuardianTramp

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