Thank the god of dance Graeme Murphy (and indispensible collaborator and muse, Janet Vernon) was lured out of retirement. His shiny new production of Prokoviev’s Romeo And Juliet has all the verve and with Shakespeare would’ve, one speculates, appreciated, if not the wonderful words.
Instead, Murphy’s are “written in flesh and sweat”. He humbly suggests they’re ephemeral but, in truth, underneath the fancy and folly is a heart of pure passion and pathos, which beats wildly at various critical points in the unfolding of this most classic of all love stories. And Murphy, albeit through different skills and media, is as much a bard as the original, given his prodigious affinity for cohesive narrative; certainly, his language is as rich and original.
Of course, when I say ‘Murphy’, I am, almost by definition and inference, implying and including the entirety of what might be called ‘Team Murphy’, a coterie of genius that includes Vernon, costume designer Akira Isogawa, set designer Gerard Manion, lighting designer Damien Cooper and projection designer Jason Lam. They’re as tight as a locked-down, impenetrable scrum; seemingly each other’s mind-readers, such is the degree of sympathy for and synergy with each other’s craft. Each and all of these components is and are ravishing; ‘though least among them are Lam’s projections, which don’t seem entirely warranted and which one might be tempted to deem overkill.
Team Murphy also benefits from the always extraordinary conductorship of Nicolette Fraillon, who consistently draws the very best from the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, which is really saying something. And old Sergei’s score, with its central, memorable riff, has all the requisite drama and dynamics R&J demands.
“My language can only be read through the lens of the dancers’ artistry,” Murphy concedes and, in so doing, pays homage to the likes of Amber Scott, as a butterfly-fragile Juliet, and Andrew Killian, as the smitten, love-blinded Romeo, risking it all in the service of his unbridled affections.
The classic street brawl between sworn enemies that opens the play is faithfully recounted in this production, with a rhythmic showcase of swordplay that quickens the blood. There is nary a reference to Romeo’s first obsessive love, in Rosaline: once he glimpses Juliet he’s a one-woman man, all over again, albeit in deference to a different woman. They are, apparently, not exactly irreplaceable, in Romeo’s fickle heart and, if there’s a flaw in the telling, perhaps it’s that this piquant (if not downright poisonous) cynicism, leaking from Shakespeare’s pen, isn’t accorded much weight.
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It would be hard to find fault beyond this, though, as Murphy seems to veritably channel the spirit and attitude of ye olde Bill, as he takes us on a Peter Stuyvesant-style, jetsetting world tour. There’s a Bollywood scene; Lawrence Of Arabia; even Hare Krishnas make a meandering cameo. Murphy doesn’t just surprise, he delights with his naughty sense of humour, right down to an incidental Bond reference and what I took to be a send-up of synchronised swimming. But these aren’t necessarily just gimmicks or reckless flights of fancy. The desert scene points to emotional aridity occasioned by Romeo’s separation from his true love, for example, and, as such, is pointed and poignant.
Principals aside, it’s almost certainly Brett Chynoweth’s Mercutio and Jacob Sofer’s Benvolio that steal the show, with their playful antics: Romeo is almost Zeppo, to their Harpo and Chico.
The final triumph of Murphy is his uncanny knack to all but conceal (or, at least, sublimate) technical precision and excellence beneath a substantial layer of expressiveness.
Of course, the tragic ending is now so implicit to Western culture it proves somewhat anti-climactic, but I very much doubt you’ll be in the slightest disappointed with this bulging Christmas stocking of a ballet.