In Michael Nunn and William Trevitt’s 2019 film, Romeo and Juliet: Beyond Words, based on Kenneth MacMillan’s 1965 choreography, Royal Ballet dancers Francesca Hayward and William Bracewell were brilliantly cast in the leads, bringing Shakespeare’s young lovers vividly to life. Both Hayward and Bracewell reprise their roles in the Royal Ballet’s new season, however not with each other.
Hayward opens the run with real-life partner Cesar Corrales (★★★★★). She is one of the finest dramatic ballerinas out there, and it seems to come to her utterly naturally. You can sense the resistance when she’s introduced to Paris, he takes her arm and it makes her skin crawl almost imperceptibly. But when she looks at Romeo a smile melts across her face and you can see her heart beating faster.
Corrales arrived at the Royal a few years ago a dazzling virtuoso dancer but still learning to inhabit character, and he’s come a long way. Certainly his sweet enthusiastic Romeo reveals multiple dimensions, taking flight after meeting Juliet. Their onstage chemistry is strong (not always a given with real-life couples), she takes his face in her hands and beams, they laugh, and the yearning in the run-up to their first kiss is intoxicatingly drawn out. They make you believe in this dream of love at first sight (Shakespeare is responsible for a lot of unrealistic expectations). When the lovers wake up together the morning after Tybalt’s death, Hayward plays the scene with complexity, she’s drugged on love, her body is his, but her mind is elsewhere – namely, the fact her new husband killed her cousin – and her crisis is palpable.
What Bracewell has in common with Hayward is the way they seem to have one less layer between themselves, their characters and their emotions. Bracewell is such an instinctive performer; he’s not playing Romeo, he’s being him, young and slightly foolish, and his dancing has the same limpid quality and effortlessness.
When he meets his Juliet, Fumi Kaneko (making her debut in the role), the pair are transfixed with great curiosity, looking at each other as if an alien has just landed (★★★★☆). Kaneko, the willowiest of dancers, shows great sensitivity: facing a forced marriage to Paris her slow steps on pointe are like walking a tightrope, teetering on a perilous edge. The couple’s electricity may not be as constant as Hayward and Corrales, but there are moments where they’re lost in absolute wonder at each other. And a crushing final scene in Juliet’s tomb, where you can sense the futility as Bracewell hoists Kaneko’s limp body in the air or makes a desperate grab for her hand as his own poison takes hold too quickly.
Despite Romeo and Juliet being one of the Royal Ballet’s most performed works, this production, especially opening night, feels fresh and full of new detail. Everywhere you look in the crowd scenes there are a hundred tiny plots going on and the supporting casts are fantastic across the board: Matthew Ball’s Tybalt, itching for a fight and fiercely clashing swords with Corrales; Nathalie Harrison’s Lady Capulet giving a desperate show of grief after Tybalt’s death; Luca Acri an impertinent Mercutio set at high speed; and when Marcelino Sambé takes the same role, his decisive dancing is such a whirlwind it almost blows the corps de ballet out of his way. Prokofiev’s glorious score feeds the dancers and this epic tragedy twists the knife once more.
• Romeo and Juliet is at the Royal Opera House, London, until 25 February 2022.