Romeo and Juliet review – star-cross'd magic from Matthew Ball and Lauren Cuthbertson

Royal Opera House, London
The principals lead an emotionally charged reprise of Royal Ballet’s old faithful

At its premiere in 1965, Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet broke new ground: his first three-act work brought all his belief in realistic human drama to the refined world of ballet. His young lovers were recognisable people as well as supremely skilled dancers. Down the years, this once radical creation has become the company’s set text, the signature ballet wherein generations of dancers cut their teeth, learn their dramatic skills, and understand the fine interplay of acting and dancing that marks the Royal Ballet’s 21st-century gold standard. Dancers who go on to play Romeo and Juliet begin as townspeople, ballroom guests and harlots, watching out of the corner of their eye as the principals bring their interpretations to the soaring choreography and the heart-stopping Prokofiev score.

Tuesday night’s opening was the 485th Royal Ballet performance of Romeo and Juliet, the start of a run that extends to 11 June (when it will be screened in cinemas) and brings many debuts. The company’s current strength in depth was illustrated by the fact that Marcelino Sambé, who plays Romeo later in the run, contributed a sizzling mandolin dance, while Anna Rose O’Sullivan, his-soon-to-be Juliet, skittered across the stage as one of Juliet’s lively little friends. Reece Clarke, another Romeo-to-be, weighed in as one of Tybalt’s heavies.

But last week the attention was on Matthew Ball, just 25, fresh from dancing the Swan in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake and now bringing all his class and deep dramatic instincts to the part of Romeo, which he briefly danced four years ago. Ball has a wonderful ease on stage; the jumps and spins just seem to flow and his arms unfurl with fluid grace. He doesn’t seem to push movements but, rather, to let them arrive, unforced.

Matthew Ball (Romeo) and Lauren Cuthbertson (Juliet).
Matthew Ball (Romeo) and Lauren Cuthbertson (Juliet). Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Observer

His Romeo is above all young, full of wonder when he first sees Juliet, but quite willing to plant roguish kisses on her neck, overwhelmed with emotion in the balcony scene, distraught when he must fight her kinsman Tybalt to avenge the death of Mercutio, his friend. From the second he and Lauren Cuthbertson’s Juliet grin at each other like smitten idiots from either side of the stage, each moment of the lovers’ tragic journey is beautifully captured.

Cuthbertson has been dancing Juliet since 2004, and she brings to the role a lyrical beauty and fragility that hides the character’s determination. The scene where she resists Ryoichi Hirano’s baffled Paris is full of astonishing force and wounded pride. There’s a tenderness to her pairing with Ball; they delicately push the lines of the choreography so that emotion seems stretched to its breaking point. But there are no histrionics at the end, just sorrow. They feel deeply rather than project broadly and it is profoundly affecting.

They are surrounded by a supporting cast who make each moment tell. Valentino Zucchetti is an expressive Mercutio, James Hay a lively Benvolio – their trios with Romeo have a rare lightness and synchronicity – while the scene where they tease Kristen McNally’s pretty nurse is genuinely funny. Gary Avis makes his eye-flashing, chin-jutting mark as a bellicose Tybalt, while Hirano is wonderfully poised. You hear each character speaking even though they are silent. It is a great company achievement, one that reveals the way they understand the ballet in their bones.

At the Royal Opera House until 11 June


Sarah Crompton

The GuardianTramp

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