Set against a troubled backdrop of warring families and taking place over just three days, Romeo and Juliet is really the tale of a youthful infatuation blown out of all proportion by social circumstances. Had Romeo and Juliet survived, their whirlwind romance could have been more suited to a passing soap opera storyline than a grand narrative of doomed romance; and therein, of course, lies the tragedy.
Kenneth MacMillan's celebrated 1965 production for the Royal Ballet makes no attempt to disguise the youthful impetuosity of his protagonists; Act I's Romeo moons melodramatically over the fair Rosaline, sports with a ringletted harlot and then plunges into a street brawl all in one scene. We first encounter Juliet playing hide and seek with her beloved Nurse; bashful in front of suitor Paris, she seems more interested in her doll than in adult romance. The challenge for any performer, in either dramatic or dance theatre, is to make the teenage crush that springs up between Romeo and Juliet seem something credibly worth dying for.
Here MacMillan's choreography, with its unmannered pas de deux that seem to spring straight from the loins and speak eloquently of teenage passion, is in excellent hands. This season's opening night was danced by Carlos Acosta and Tamara Rojo, an experienced pairing noted for their dramatic presence as much as their fine techniques. Acosta gives us youthful bravado in the first act, noble (but imprudent) loyalty to his murdered friend in the second, and crazed anguish in the third on hearing his love is dead. Rojo begins the performance as a blushing innocent, too shy to meet Paris's amorous gaze; we witness Juliet's dawning realisation of her own womanhood as she blossoms in Romeo's arms, thrilling with the excitement of first passion.
MacMillan's choreography eschews the mannered gestures and commedia of earlier productions, favouring a less-is-more approach that still looks astoundingly modern today. Rojo's supple frame makes light work of the demanding pas de deux which find her sprouting from Romeo's pelvis and whirling passionately around his torso; at the same time her face and body language are engagingly naturalistic. Acosta is a more than capable support and his variations are as sharp and energetic as ever, but this is Rojo's performance. Nobody with a soul can have witnessed her dance of utter dejection at finding herself (bigamously) betrothed to Paris without feeling a stab to the heart and a lump in the throat.
The Royal Ballet is justly proud of this production, MacMillan's first full-length ballet for the company, and judging by the packed house on Tuesday is bound to sell out the run. If you're lucky enough to get a ticket, Romeo and Juliet makes for a fantastic night at the Opera House.
Romeo and Juliet is at the Royal Opera House until 31 March. Visit www.roh.org.uk/romeo to find out more.