ROMEO & JULIET VIEWING GUIDE

Posted on 30 April 2020 By Rose Mulready

Sound up high, lights down low, tissues at the ready: you're about to watch Romeo & Juliet. Grab something from the bar - perhaps some heart-shaped chocolates and a Death Potion cocktail? - and as the orchestra tunes up for that immortal Prokofiev score, flick through our viewing guide to enhance your experience of the violent delights and violent ends of this moving ballet.

Fun fact #1: In 1956, when the Bolshoi Ballet brought Romeo and Juliet to London, with the legendary Soviet ballerina Galina Ulanova dancing Juliet, the city's balletomanes queued for three days and four nights to get tickets. 

Romeo & Juliet is proudly brought to you by our Major Partner Herbert Smith Freehills.

WHICH VERSION IS THIS?

Romeo & Juliet is a modern version by the renowned Australian choreographer Graeme Murphy. Over three decades, Murphy made three seminal works for The Australian Ballet, reimagining the great classics: Nutcracker - The Story of Clara in 1992, Swan Lake in 2002 (a smash hit that has toured the world and raked in awards) and, in 2011, his audacious Romeo & Juliet. Countless creatives from Leonard Bernstein to Baz Lurhmann have updated Shakespeare's play (itself a reinvention of older sources) by setting it in modern times. Murphy went one step further. His ballet starts within the stone walls of Verona, but then moves to Antarctica, South East Asia, India and the Australian desert. Through this kaleidescope of settings, Murphy shows the universal nature of the story's themes - the scorching flame of first love, the senselessness of violence and hate, the chasm between parents and children. 

Watch out for: The way Murphy stops time when Romeo and Juliet meet in the ballroom scene. 

Fun fact: Murphy dedicated Romeo & Juliet to his teacher and lifelong friend Dame Margaret Scott, the founder of The Australian Ballet School, who spotted him as a skinny 14-year-old on a talent-scouting trip to Tasmania and nurtured his career. 

Deep dive: Who is this Graeme Murphy, and why is he important to The Australian Ballet? Find out

Amy Harris and artists of The Australian Ballet. Photography Jeff Busby

WHO DANCES THE LEAD ROLES?

Kevin Jackson, one of our principal artists, and Madeleine Eastoe, a principal artist until her retirement in 2015, created the roles of Romeo and Juliet. Theirs was one of those extraordinary dance partnerships in which chemistry, trust and musicality flower into magic onstage. Jackson, who created the lead role in our recent production of Spartacus, combines muscularity with sensitivity, and is one of the greatest partners in the company's history. Eastoe has an elven, ethereal quality, quicksilver speed and a meltingly soft way of phrasing her steps. 

WATCH OUT FOR: The adorable moment in the balcony scene where Romeo invites Juliet to listen to the pounding of his heart. 

FUN FACT: Jackson and Eastoe danced opening night of Murphy's Swan Lake on our 50th Anniversary tour of New York. Jackson also partnered Eastoe in her farewell performance, as Titania in Frederick Ashton's The Dream.

DEEP DIVE: "To collapse in a heap laughing when something goes wrong is a much better way than to collapse in a heap of tears." Watch Graeme Murphy working with Eastoe and Jackson on Romeo & Juliet.

Photography Daniel Boud

WHO WROTE THE MUSIC?

If you saw our production of Cinderella, just screened as part of our Digital Season, you'll be familiar with the almost hallucinatory vividness of Sergei Prokofiev's music. Romeo and Juliet is his most famous and beloved score, and key moments from it (the swooning balcony scene, the stirring Dance of the Knights) are threaded throughout popular culture. As clearly as a a libretto, the score lays out the evolution of the story, evoking swordplay, merriment, the wonder of first love, murder, sexual ecstacy, mental turmoil and the eeriness of the tomb. Each of the main characters has their leitmotif, and these and the musical themes acquire layers of complexity as the tragedy unfolds. 

Prokofiev wrote the score under the eye of the Stalinist regime, and officials revised his orchestration, adding lavish amounts of strings and brass to uplift the masses. However, despite this, and despite the dancers of the Bolshoi Ballet going on strike over the music, which they pronounced ‘undanceable’, Romeo and Juliet has proved itself as immortal as Shakespeare’s play.

Listen out for: In Mercutio’s death scene (surely the longest exit in ballet history), the tolling of a single drum mimics his heartbeat as it slows and finally stops. The same effect is briefly repeated when Tybalt dies soon after.

Fun fact: The original ballet version of Romeo and Juliet had a happy ending – Juliet woke up in time and the couple was united. Prokofiev claimed he put in this ending because “living people can dance, the dying can not”, but it probably had more to do with nervousness about official reprisals in a political climate that called for relentless optimism. Shakespeare’s ending was quickly restored.

Deep dive: Dr Mark Carroll discusses the score in an article written for our Romeo & Juliet program.

Daniel Gaudiello, Adam Bull and Kevin Jackson. Photography Jeff Busby

WHO DESIGNED THE SETS AND COSTUMES?

The costumes were created by the celebrated fashion designer Akira Isogawa, who has collaborated several times with Murphy. His design for Romeo & Juliet features his trademark use of diaphanous layers, appliqué and shibori, a Japanese pleating technique that produces meringue-like peaks. Murphy loves to choreograph with fabric and in Romeo & Juliet he uses Isogawa's long floating trains to accentuate movement. 

The costumes for the Montagues feature a gun motif; the Capulet costumes feature roses. A single one of Isogawa's designs took as many as 80 hours to complete, and there were over 150 costumes in the production. Over 5000 metres of fabric, 2000 sequins and 1000 Swarovski crystals were used to make them. 

The sets were created by artist Gerard Manion, who with endless ingenuity conjured the myriad locations of the ballet, from an ice palace to a Buddhist temple to a desert tomb. Jason Lam's projections add texture and movement. Lilies - luscious and poisonous, bridal and funereal - are a reccurent motif. 

Watch out for: Isogawa's starkly elegant, high-collared coat for Death, the character who opens the ballet. A skeletal black hand is appliquéd on the black fabric of the shoulder. 

Fun fact: In the tomb scene, Juliet lies on a bed of skulls. Shortly before the premiere of Romeo & Juliet, staff were transporting the skulls from a workshop to the Ballet Centre in an open-bed truck; they caused considerable consternation, and numerous Melburnians called news desks to report seeing them. 

Deep dive: Isogawa talks about boiling sequins and choreographing fabric as he works on the design for Romeo & Juliet

Kevin Jackson. Photography Georges Antoni