Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet
Choreography by Matthew Bourne; music by Sergei Prokofiev
Alhambra Theatre, Bradford
One of the great qualities of Shakespeare’s plays is their amazing flexibility, which allows for a range of surprising reinventions. In the cinema, for example, we have seen the gender war of The Taming of the Shrew relocated to an American high school (10 Things I Hate About You), the familial conflict of Hamlet played out on an African savannah (The Lion King) and The Tempest given the sci-fi treatment (Forbidden Planet).
Romeo and Juliet has inspired some striking reinterpretations, not least West Side Story and Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film (starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes), both of which are set in contemporary urban spaces and play upon racial tensions between the characters. However, Matthew Bourne’s production—which was first performed in 2019—takes an even bolder approach to Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers.
Eschewing many of the plot elements we most associate with the original play—most obviously the notion of warring families—Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet focuses on the emotional volatility of youth. The show’s setting—a sort-of psychiatric hospital-cum-borstal known as the Verona Institute—is deliberately ambiguous, but one gets the sense that it is a place where wilful young people are hidden away and taught to conform.
Embarrassed by their troubled son, the Montagues deposit Romeo (Rory Macleod) within the Institute. Upon arrival, he is quickly befriended by Mercutio (Ben Brown), a zestful patient-prisoner whose spirits have not yet been broken by the facility.
Romeo soon meets and falls in love with Juliet (Monique Jonas), who has been forced to endure physical and mental abuse from Tybalt (Danny Reubens), a sadistic prison guard.
While Bourne has never shied away from exploring the dark side of life—his breakthrough production of Swan Lake, after all, is framed as the sexual frustrations of a closeted gay prince—I was impressed by the toughness of his Romeo and Juliet, which confidently grapples with topics such as knife crime, sexual abuse and homophobic bigotry.
Overall, I appreciated the imagination of Bourne’s retelling, which manages to preserve the main characters and developments of the original play without being overly reverential. That being said, the grand finale was a bit lurid for my taste.
Cleverly designed by Lez Brotherston, the Verona Institute brings to mind the work of the filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, particularly his nightmarish comedy A Clockwork Orange. The simplicity of the set—which consists mainly of a semi-circular white wall—is suitably clinical and forms a nice contrast with the feverish plot.
Bourne’s choreography proves highly effective at capturing both the soullessness of the institution (the prisoners / patients are required to perform routines in unison) and the romantic passions of the title characters.
Romeo and Juliet is famously about youth, and the production benefits enormously from having an ensemble of young dancers, nine of whom are making their debuts with New Adventures.
While the score is not performed live, there is much pleasure to be had in Terry Davies’s recording of Prokofiev’s music. “The Dance of the Knights” might be widely known as the theme tune of The Apprentice on BBC One, but this production underlines its original dramatic intent.
Visually arresting and brimming with excitement, Romeo and Juliet is sure to satisfy both Bourne’s legion of admirers and those coming to his work for the first time.
Reviewer: James Ballands