Who's the real rebel in Romeo and Juliet?

Surely, it's reckless Romeo, from the house of Montague, who dares to sneak into a ball given by his family's hated rivals, the Capulets, then has the nerve to fall head over heels for young Juliet Capulet?

And what of Romeo's Montague mates, especially Mercutio, driven by a potent mix of testosterone and desire? But the lads from the rival house of Capulet aren't much better, with Tybalt's temper setting the scene for a murderous encounter.

Ask the Royal New Zealand Ballet's outgoing artistic director Francesco Ventriglia and he'll advise you to look more closely at Juliet.

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"It's not all about the love of these two kids; it's about the context in which they move. It's about the power of the church in the society of that moment, it's about the power of men and women and it's about women without freedom," he says.

"It's about Juliet being an extremely strong woman at 14 years old. She knows very well what freedom is and she knows very well what being a woman is. For me, Juliet is not a little girl; for me, Juliet is a strong woman."

After all, she orchestrates the meetings with Romeo and the - ultimately doomed - plan to flee their warring families. What's more, she does it without being allowed out of her bedroom except to go to confession.

Ventriglia's version of Romeo and Juliet is now touring the country and, with 13 scene changes and more than 90 costumes, is the RNZB's biggest production of 2017. He has stayed true to its Renaissance setting, working with designer James Acheson, whose lavish work on films like Dangerous Liaisons, The Last Emperor and Restoration won him three Academy Awards.

Oscar winning costume designer James Acheson takes audiences back to renaissance Verona with lavish costumes and set.
Oscar winning costume designer James Acheson takes audiences back to renaissance Verona with lavish costumes and set.

The ballet uses composer Sergei Prokofiev's famed score but draws heavily on Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 film, where Olivia Hussey played Juliet with a good deal more intensity than previously seen.

For Ventriglia, it's not about bringing a new take to Shakespeare's story because it's "cool" to be different but because it's relevant and highlights oft-overlooked aspects to the tale.

That's music to the ears of ballerinas Madeleine Graham and Mayu Tanigaito, who share the role of Juliet. They agree she needs to be portrayed with an independent spirit, strength and air of burgeoning maturity.

"I don't want to be just like a little cute girl because that doesn't make sense for me," says Tanigaito. "In the story, she's one the deciding to do things, she's the one making plans to drink poison [and fake her own death] so I think Juliet should have a strong personality, strong ideas"

Graham sees Juliet undergoing a rapid transformation from docile daughter to determined young woman and it's important this is forcefully portrayed through the dance.

"At the beginning, she's quite young, naive and playful, and the way I'm dancing that, it's quite easy, with certain movements - quick steps and a lot of running around the stage - to portray that," Graham says. "Then, I guess, we realise that she's not as young and unaware of things as she might seem. She's very certain of what she wants and doesn't agree with what is being forced upon her and she shows that."

The movements become slower and lengthier; there's a greater awareness in the way Juliet moves. Tanigaito says there are subtle things the audience might not even notice. In Act I, Juliet takes her father's hand; by Act II, she's hesitant.

Ventriglia hired dramaturg Mario Mattia Giorgetti to work with the company, saying he wanted to respect the text and score - honour its heritage - but more thoroughly investigate how they could give greater context to the story. It allowed them to see the characters more clearly.

"As dancers, I guess you're so used to just smiling," says Graham. "You have certain expressions that you might usually go to but I've had to explore the deeper things here and it's been very helpful."

Romeo, played by Joseph Skelton, is usually the strong character but RNZ Ballet is focusing on Juliet, played by Madeleine Graham.
Romeo, played by Joseph Skelton, is usually the strong character but RNZ Ballet is focusing on Juliet, played by Madeleine Graham.

Meanwhile, Christel Chapman, who played Juliet in Pop-up Globe's Romeo and Juliet, says she sees the teenager as courageous, unafraid of challenging family and forging her own path.

"We performed for three months so I had a long time to think about Juliet," says Chapman, soon to appear in the Brokenwood Mysteries. "The changes she goes through as a person in a short space of time are huge and she makes an incredible decision to go against the wishes of her family. She's courageous, not simply a 'nice, sweet' girl.

"I don't think it's any easier to play the so-called 'bad' characters than the supposedly nice ones, like Juliet. They each have their own challenges and to look at them one way or the other - simply good or bad - is to make them one-dimensional. In real life, people who, like Juliet appear to be nice, have their layers, too."

Auckland Art Gallery's Mary Kisler doesn't hesitate to label Juliet a proto-feminist.

The gallery's senior curator of the Mackelvie collection and international art, Kisler has brought to NZ The Corsini Collection: A Window on Renaissance Florence, which features Renaissance and Baroque painting by artists such as Botticelli, Caravaggio, Andrea del Sarto and Pontormo.

She says there are several paintings where women with a more defiant streak than the times - Renaissance and the later Baroque - might have allowed can be seen. Carlo Dolci's Hope shows an idealised version of how many thought a girl should appear: hands clasped in prayer, devoted expression on face and eyes cast heavenwards.

But painter Guercino's Persian Sibyl features a young woman seated at a desk, leaning on her books, writing and taking a moment to reflect on her scholarship. In Ancient Greek mythology, the sibyls were believed to be able to make divine prophecies.

Perhaps most striking of all, and still shocking today, is Matteo Rosselli's depiction of the moment when Jael, regarded as a heroine, murders the defeated general Sisera by hammering a tent peg into his temple.

"She's determined," says Kisler. "I mean that's not a little pin she's holding but a ruddy great nail."

Lowdown
What: Royal NZ Ballet, Romeo and Juliet
Where and when: ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre; August 30-September 3; touring NZ until September 24. See rnzb.org.nz for a full list of dates and venues.

In a first for the RNZB, a live audio description for blind and visually impaired patrons is available at the September 3 production.