Below the fold is one of the oddest reviews I’ve ever written, but it’s what came out when I started writing about Joffrey Ballet’s performance of Krzysztof Pastor’s Romeo and Juliet tonight. I’ll post a more conventional review in the next couple of days, which will say more about the dancers and what I think worked and didn’t. This is mostly about the story Pastor chose to tell. It is not an easy ballet to watch.
This is perhaps the most brutal Romeo and Juliet I’ve seen, and that brutality is largely on Capulet’s shoulders. Capulet who is severe and abusive of wife and daughter. Capulet who places the knife in Tybalt’s hands. Capulet who cannot allow his wife’s grief at Tybalt’s death. Capulet who shows nothing — not even remorse — upon finding Juliet the second time.
We meet Romeo in the town where most people, despite all having allegiances, hope for peace. Romeo hopes for peace. But Capulet is aligned with the military and must make shows of force; Capulet and Tybalt and their people repeatedly parade through. Mercutio thinks it’s ridiculous, calls out the absurdity. He is brash, bold, in your face and your space. He is also protective of his own. Tybalt? Tybalt is a fire easily lit. This does not end well. Romeo pushes people apart, goes to Capulet for peace — Romeo appears to lead the Montague clan, despite his youth — but no. Lawrence finally stops the fight, but there is no peace. They all fall to the ground, and through the darkness and devastation, Juliet walks in a spot of light.
We meet Juliet as she navigates carnage. She is young but the daughter of Capulet; she is not innocent. At the party she doesn’t want to dance, not with anyone, not even with Tybalt. Tybalt is gentle with her and also with her mother, Tybalt who otherwise is so much anger. But these two women, he loves. Capulet, on the other hand, does not love. Juliet is his, his to be shown, his to be exploited. She will marry. He forces her to dance for those at the party. Dance with him. He is taller than her, bigger than her, overpowers her.
In the midst of all this, there is Juliet, and there is Romeo. They are not subtle. He is drawn to her and she more cautiously to him. Mercutio and Benvolio try to hold Juliet back. Tybalt and Capulet try to hold Juliet back. They find their way to each other multiple times despite this, and Juliet lets her guard down. Romeo makes her laugh. Romeo is persistent, but he doesn’t push. This is how it’s supposed to feel, she realizes. So when he comes to her balcony that night, she climbs down and joins him, and before he leaves they kiss — finally kiss, and it is new and right and once is not enough. They kiss and kiss and then have to go but one more kiss — and then Juliet goes back to her room (tight little space of mirrors; Romeo is freedom), and Romeo leaves.
Lawrence tries. He tries to part the two, but they will not be parted. They come to his chapel and he tries to talk to them alone, partners them separately, but he lifts Juliet and then she is in Romeo’s arms, and he gives in. Marries them. What else can he do now? He tries to console Juliet, engaged to a man who is not her exiled husband; she will not be consoled. He tries to tell Romeo and fails. That is Lawrence’s lot, to try and never be enough. He has separated so many fights; he has never prevented the next.
Juliet has friends, not a nurse. Friends who talk and hang out with her at home, at the party, around town. Friends who pass the message and witness the wedding. Friends who also walk the line, dancing with Montagues — not just dancing along with the Montagues, but with them, and with Mercutio and Benvolio no less. Friends with more freedom than Juliet. It hurts.
The fight between Tybalt and Mercutio that leads to both their deaths starts when Capulet and Tybalt find Romeo and Juliet together in the village. She’s been blending in, but then she is spotted, and Capulet’s fury is cold. Tybalt burns hot. Romeo tries to stop it again and again, but Capulet and Tybalt reject him forcefully every time; finally Mercutio tells him to stop interfering. And then the fight, which Mercutio essentially wins. Wins until hours back is turned and suddenly Tybalt has a knife.
Mercutio dies relatively quickly. Romeo seems lost until Benvolio places the blood-coated knife in his hands. Romeo has no control. He is still, perhaps, lost, but with a purpose and frenzy. He would not win the fight, except he is the one with the knife. He stabs Tybalt more than once.
Capulet and his wife both mourn, but he stops her, hurts her. She is not allowed this. And Juliet walks through the carnage once again.
There is no intermission. We reach the bedroom, Romeo and Juliet wrapping together, lust and grief and guilt and need. Gentle but urgent. I love the moment of Romeo looking at his hands, bewildered, disgusted. Blood. Juliet, wiping them on her own shirt. Kissing them. Placing them together.
Juliet has no nurse. She has a relationship with her mother. Her mother, who lives this child, who wants to intercede for this child, who tries but… but. She cannot look at her child as she pushes her daughter back towards Capulet. But then she hovers because this is wrong, this is wrong, hugs her daughter when she runs to her again. Stays after the men have gone. Juliet’s mother, who mourns with her, who bears Juliet’s grief and anger as well as get own. She both knows and doesn’t why her daughter is grieving so fiercely, resisting like this; Juliet has never been compliant, not fully, but this desperation is new. This Juliet doesn’t want to live if it means being her father’s pawn anymore.
When Juliet strains towards stage right, sometimes it is to her mother’s arms. Sometimes it is in pursuit of the boy who has gone. The man her father chooses for her is nothing. She shows no acknowledgment. We do not know him. He is just another man in black. Her father’s creature. Juliet’s husband wears blue.
It is her mother who fetches Friar Lawrence. Lawrence who knows, who understands, but Juliet is still angry. Still lashing out. She cannot live with this. And so Lawrence gives her a way to die, and the way he talks to her, looks back at her as he leaves — it’s one of the most human parts of a very human ballet.
Juliet drinks and lays out perfect on her bed. Straight. Toes pointed. She is lit in blue, and it is not her friends serenading her who find her dead, not in this story. It is her parents. Mother, then father. From him there is perhaps shock and perhaps anger, but he is stoic above all. Heaven forbid we think anything less of him and his. His grief for Tybalt was public anger. The one who truly mourns both children of the house is the woman beside him.
Lawrence stands at the back of the funeral, looking away from the body, looking down. He goes over to her after the others have left, then walks off the long way, stage right. Romeo has entered from stage right, but they have their backs turned to each other. The message is not passed.
We only truly know Romeo in his grief. He threw nearly everything away in grief for Mercutio and throws away the rest in grief for Juliet. He mourns with his whole body. She does too, when she wakes up to Romeo dead beside her, on top of her. She shakes him, runs as if to go for help, drags him across the floor as if to take him to help, but there is no help. This is a crypt. He stabbed himself; she finds the knife, places it in his hand, and stabs herself.
They find them. Stand there, stare. The Montagues, the Capulets. In this story there is no repentance and no forgiveness except that which Juliet gives Romeo. Capulet picks up Juliet and carries her away, still showing nothing. The Montagues pick up Romeo, and they leave, too. It’s how they carried away the bodies of Tybalt and Mercutio, except this time Capulet does not delegate the weight. Maybe he feels something? But not enough. Not enough to call halt, to say no more. And why should the Montagues do that? Romeo was the one who always called for peace, and now he’s dead in their arms.
It is not over, but the curtain falls.