There were no plush red curtains, the orchestra was seated above the stage, there were three big screens, no scenery changes and the audience munched on hotdogs and drank beer. You could have been forgiven for thinking you were at a concert rather than watching The Royal Ballet in their temporary residence – the O2 arena.
The change of location from the Royal Opera House to the O2 was always going to be a risky experiment and unfortunately for me it didn’t pay off. Trying to create the intimate atmosphere needed for Romeo and Juliet with a 12,000 strong audience (although not all the seats were filled) is nigh on impossible. As is trying to get 12,000 people to behave in an appropriate manner for 3 hours. People constantly walking in and out of the performance to get more beer, children talking the whole way through, very muted applause and leaving the arena during the curtain call, minus the curtains, were a constant source of irritation to the seasoned ballet-goers. But as the choice of venue was intended to open ballet up to a wider audience perhaps this is where ballet is headed. If so, you can count me out!
To make things worse many of the seats were sideways on to the stage, which resulted in terrible neck ache and the dancers were so far away that in order to get a sense of the emotion you had to keep flicking between the three screens and the dancers. For large parts of the ballet, especially act 3, I watched the screens more than the dancers below them.
On a positive note the amplified music helped create the drama and emotion that the distance from the stage prevented and was particularly magnificent during the Dance of the Montagues and Capulets.
Although I resented the fact that I had to watch the screens because I was so far away from the action they did bring something different to ballet and certainly weren’t a complete failure. During the balcony scene I was more moved than ever before, partly because Lauren Cuthbertson and Edward Watson danced it so beautifully and partly because I could, thanks to the screens, see the minute details of their faces which portrayed the emotions you usually have to imagine if you aren’t in the front row of the orchestra stalls.
The screens also showed exactly how much effort it takes for the dancers to make the balcony scene so powerful. Their digitally magnified heaving chests made me applaud with more gusto than normal. Added to this the interludes of Shakespearian verse and clips of the story shown on the screens helped to tell the story in a fresh and interesting way.
Despite my reservations about the venue and the behaviour of the audience, at the heart of this somewhat different balletic experience was a company who danced my favourite ballet to perfection….or at least that’s how it appeared from what I could see anyway!