Romeo and Juliet

Gaiety Theatre

Gaiety Theatre

Morgann Runacre-Temple’s Romeo and Juliet feels like a “reality ballet”, appealing to audiences more familiar with television’s latest trend than with 16th-century Verona. Chic chiffon dresses replace tutus and elaborate ball scenes in this clever spin-off of Shakespeare’s tale, and it marks Ballet Ireland’s finest full-length production to date.

In this story-within-a-story, we meet a coolly-aloof cast assembling to rehearse the Capulet-Montague drama under the tutelage of a fusspot teacher. When the students exchange slightly dishevelled school uniforms for costumes, the action gets rolling until theatricality and reality begin to collide.

The enchanting Zöe Ashe- Brown creates a slightly self-conscious Juliet, a demure beauty whose confidence builds as her relationship with Romeo (David Horn) develops. They first meet in a crowded room, and under a brilliant choreographic device, everyone else in the room freezes as the two gravitate toward each other. For them time has stopped. They profess their love in a balcony scene that could be a wall perched above a park, and then their chemistry drives the action forward in a delicate blend of movement and drama.


“It’s a real rite of passage for a ballet choreographer to do Romeo and Juliet, especially with that Prokofiev score,” Runacre-Temple confessed shortly before opening night. “There were some musical passages I was petrified of.” Her research and commitment to her own vision pay off because never in this production does the action or story falter. Clear movement and creative use of the 15-member cast replace what can often look like indecipherable pantomiming and hand-waving in other versions. Even the fight scenes rely on pure physical movement, eliminating the usual jumble of clashing swords.

Finally, when the pair meet their tragic end, we feel as if we’ve known them, and that sense of “reality ballet” resurfaces. We ache with Juliet – perhaps even more so because her slightly tangled mess of hair resembles what most of us would look like having drunk a coma-inducing potion. Removing the 16th century velvet robes makes it easier to grieve. After reminding us of the magic of falling in love and the hopefulness of envisioning life together, Ashe-Brown and Horn deliver heart-stopping interpretations of the final scene.

Having already tackled other full-length works such as Cinderella, 28-year-old Runacre-Temple pursued this project from a multi-media perspective, studying stage and film versions of Romeo and Juliet before deciding to place hers in a more contemporary setting. She watched the Royal Shakespeare Company perform and then combed the archives in Stratford as part of her research, and in turn we see contemporary accoutrements with all of the key characters, rivalries and romances. Other ballet versions figured in her process only towards the end, and the result is full of the grounded legwork, abstract arm gestures and welcome use of stillness that have typified her previous dances.

Runacre-Temple taps into a zeitgeist so many other ballet companies desperately want to access right now, making relevant what is often seen as an elitist art form while still honouring its roots. Just last month New York City Ballet launched an advertising campaign projecting images of its street-clothed dancers against sides of buildings and in subway cars during rush hour, aimed at convincing younger audiences to buy tickets to the ballet. Those dancers appear similar to Ashe- Brown and Horn, all elegance, grace and stylish sense of intrigue.

Runacre-Temple understands this image appeals to more than just little girls who want to grow up to be dancing princesses, or moneyed audiences who have done so. This sense of wanting to know the person behind the persona on stage is as common now as asking for a daughter’s hand in marriage was in Shakespeare’s time. Runacre- Temple gets it, and Ballet Ireland fortuitously has gotten a head start on discovering and nurturing her talent.