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Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet

Director and choreographer Matthew Bourne, music Sergei Prokofiev
New Adventures
Sadler’s Wells
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Highly promoted, highly anticipated, after a tour (since May) of the provinces, where Sir Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures company auditioned hundreds of youngsters to take on six young additional dancers, some still studying, some just starting out, for each venue, the London première of Romeo and Juliet has already sold out. With Bourne’s name attached that is not surprising.

Nor is his setting of it in the Verona Institute, a white-tiled, metal-fenced, grille-gated, alarmed institution, a cross between a rehab centre, a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest mental asylum (therapy sessions, medical trolleys, drugs administered, Romeo in a straitjacket) and a juvenile prison with its bridge walkway and stairs—useful for the balcony scene and endless chasing. Bourne seems to have a penchant for white-tiled madhouses—in Swan Lake the Prince is incarcerated in one, in his Nutcracker the children are in a grim orphanage.

Teenage emotions, repressed and misunderstood by adults, their constraints are made manifest in this new dance drama production of Romeo and Juliet, which is firmly aimed at young people. My fifteen-year-old escort likes it more than I do, and that's as it should be. Not only is Bourne furthering the careers of young dancers (indistinguishable from the professionals on stage), ‘young associate’ choreographers, designers, conductors, and orchestrators, but the programme also lists helplines and organisations for distressed minds. There’s a lot of admirable work invested in this two-hour production.

If only Romeo and Juliet could have been helped… Juliet is already one of the inmates—the Capulets are absent—but Romeo (an apparently difficult teen with “shades of Barron Trump”), is deposited by his parents, Senator and Mrs Montague straight out of House of Cards (she blonde-wigged to look like Robin Wright), money no object.

Tybalt, the barrel-chested guard (Dan Wright in a striking, stand-out strongman performance, is booed at the end like a panto villain), pursues Juliet, we assume rapes her in a back room, which ultimately leads to the final tragedy. Segregated sexes, regimented routines, Soviet / Hitler Youth style calisthenics, and surveillance—not quite Handmaid’s Tale but close.

When Bourne comes on stage half an hour into the first act, I think it is part of the scenario: there’s an injury, Mercutio (Reese Causton) is injured. This is novel, but no, it’s for real, a sprained ankle, and the show is halted till Ben Brown from the second cast is found. Wind back a little and the show goes on seamlessly. Brown is a fine Mercutio in his rule-breaking kilt, and Jackson Fisch as his grief-stricken boyfriend Balthasar in a brief solo is another one to watch.

White ceramics, white morgue slab, white pyjama outfits for the inmates, Tybalt in policeman black—it is a black and white movie: another one of Bourne’s tropes. It’s always spot the film influence. Waves of youngsters (corps of fifteen) in white also make me see the flock of swans in his Swan Lake, even to seeing moves replicated. I wonder if this is deliberate, this clever linking. There are almost too many creative ideas spilling forth from his fertile mind. Another viewing would not be amiss. No doubt there will be more tinkering with it. It’s not a subject he thought he could find a way into, he has said, so often has it been reworked.

The recreational social dance evening (when the lovers meet and where the robotic, conditioned teenagers let their hair down when the guards aren’t watching) with its spaceship disco ball brings a little bit of casual colour to Lez Brotherston monochrome set. Romeo’s parents are in blue suits; and the institution’s kindly Reverend Bernadette Laurence in long green cardigan over her black vicar’s garb. Daisy May Kemp not only combines the roles of the Nurse and Friar Lawrence in her facilitating persona, she also plays the cold Mrs Montague. That’s good casting.

What is also not surprising is that there is no synopsis in the programme of this new psychodrama version. And I won’t be a spoilsport. We know Shakespeare’s version, we know Tybalt, Mercutio, Romeo and Juliet die, but Bourne’s twists I’ll leave you to guess. Suffice to say Juliet is the catalyst as in Shakespeare’s tale, and the issue of knives in youth culture is not avoided. Cordelia Braithwaite’s Juliet is unmissable—not only for her flaming hair—and Paris Fitzpatrick brings a melancholy, etiolated loneliness to Romeo, whom Juliet brings to life for the first time in his life, one imagines.

What is surprising is Terry Davies’s amplified re-orchestration for the fifteen-strong New Adventures Orchestra, under Brett Morris’s baton, of Prokofiev’s music. A cinematic score for a cinematic production... the slam of those metal gates, alarm bells, sound effects… Of course, as Morris mentions in his useful programme notes (“a re-imagination of the orchestration from the ground up”), there are many performing versions of Prokofiev’s score, and as we know Prokofiev did not have an easy time of it under Stalin. Nor am I scrambling to spot the shuffling of the jazzed-up musical pack of cards.

No matter, the audience loves it. Bourne, collaborating with “19 existing members of [his] company” who also mentored the young associates, can do no wrong. He is an institution himself. Another treat, his Red Shoes goes on tour this autumn and is back at Sadler’s Wells this Christmas.

Reviewer: Vera Liber