Seldom can a ballet have been as fresh at 50 as Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet. Made in 1965, his interpretation of Prokofiev’s magisterial score – monumentally designed by Nicholas Georgiadis – retains the potential to shred the emotions like few other stage creations of any kind. And, in Juliet, whose story this supremely is, it offers what remains one of the greatest ballerina roles.
This means, of course, that a fearsome responsibility hangs on the slender shoulders of anyone who tackles the role. And on Saturday night – the first of the Royal Ballet’s autumn season – that fine dancer Sarah Lamb served up a Juliet of physical grace, lightness and technical polish, but also of disappointing emotional distance and chill.
There is little about her here to suggest an Italian, in the first flush of womanhood, ecstatically engulfed by the flames of true love. On initially encountering Steven McRae’s quicksilver Romeo, her Juliet reacts with same sort of mild-mannered happiness with which she earlier greets her intended, Ryoichi Hirano’s gallant Paris.
Even in the pivotal Balcony scene, she seems unwilling fully to commit to her Romeo, however many blissful, lightning-fast jumps and turns he fires off in her honour.
It is only fair to mention that McRae himself (who acts committedly throughout), is a dancer more of boyish brio rather than animal magnetism – he needs someone to tease out his earthier side as, say, the now-retired Leanne Benjamin did so brilliantly in 2011 in another MacMillan masterpiece, Manon. Also in fairness to Lamb, her froideur certainly comes into its own in Act III – she injects real, bitter drama into Juliet’s rejection of Paris and scorning of her parents and does, at long last, fully and movingly let herself go in the piece’s tragic closing moments.
There is fine support elsewhere. Admittedly, Tristan Dyer’s Benvolio, though capable, is slightly anonymous, but Gary Avis’s Tybalt and Alexander Campbell’s Mercutio are both first-rate. The former – for the umpteenth time – lends magnificent authority and menace to Juliet’s cousin. The latter finds exactly the right nimble-footed charm as Romeo’s doomed friend, but also matches Avis’s red-clawed aggression in the fatal swordfight, bringing proper fury to both that and his superbly handled death scene.
These, indeed, are the two most gripping episodes of an evening with much to enjoy (in the corps’ work too), but one that repeatedly had me thinking back to the devastating, Wagnerian passion that Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta ignited together as the star-cross’d lovers just a few years ago, on the same stage.
Those are the romantic, erotic and emotional fireworks that this piece demands at its core if it is to do MacMillan, and indeed Prokofiev, full justice.
In rep until Dec 2. Tickets: 020 7304 4000; roh.org.uk