Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet

Director and choreographer Matthew Bourne, music Sergei Prokofiev
New Adventures and Sadler’s Wells co-production
Sadler’s Wells

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Paris Fitzpatrick as Romeo and Cordelia Braithwaite as Juliet Credit: Johan Persson
Paris Fitzpatrick and Cordelia Braithwaite Credit: Johan Persson
Paris Fitzpatrick, Cordelia Braithwaite and Company Credit: Johan Persson
Cordelia Braithwaite and Paris Fitzpatrick Credit: Johan Persson
Paris Fitzpatrick and Company Credit: Johan Persson
Jackson Fisch, Harry Ondrak-Wright, Cameron Flynn, Paris Fitzpatrick (Romeo) and Daisy May Kemp Credit: Johan Persson

I saw Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet—twice (both casts)—exactly four years ago. Tonight, the lead cast is almost the same as then—has anything changed? Naturally, there are fresh young joiners to the family that is New Adventures, and there is gender fluidity. But the essential concept remains—troubled, volatile teenagers, bursting with hormones, controlled by flawed, indifferent, dangerous adults.

Take your pick from any dystopian tale you like. An authoritarian regime incarcerates its pubescent young—a powder-keg situation. In a white-tiled institution, prison gates clanging, lights flashing, inmates, seven male, seven female (not counting Romeo and Juliet), in white, clinical staff in white, chief warder Tybalt (Danny Reubens brilliantly demented and intimidating) in black, what sort of metaphorical penitentiary is this Verona Institute?

Bourne has taken readings from his young company—is this capricious youth versus cynical age? Knife crime, mental health, though Tybalt’s seems the most clinically visible, and sedation... Sedation makes me think of Soviet psychiatric hospitals for dissidents. Many mental homes in England provided useful service for troublesome relatives, if one believes everything one reads. Or am I thinking of several Hollywood movies and literature? Bourne certainly is… I think.

Juliet allows herself to be raped by predatory Tybalt, who likes to size up his prey during morning exercises. When a diffident Romeo (slim, long-limbed Paris Fitzpatrick lithe and acrobatic) turns up, dumped by his rich parents, he is immediately drawn to flame-haired Juliet, and she to him. Their eyes meet at a disco party thrown by the institute’s pastoral care vicar, Reverend Bernadette Laurence (Daisy May Kemp). Why such a softie is employed there is anybody’s guess.

When the adults are gone, the youngsters let their hair down and sedate dance turns frisky. In their dormitories, they come alive with high jinx and love affairs. The trio of naughty boys, Mercutio, his boyfriend Balthasar and Benvolio (Ben Brown, Jackson Fisch, Euan Garrett), are a delight, as is Enrique Ngbokota’s Lennox, who, with their flaming hair and cross-dressing, I could easily mistake for Juliet (Cordelia Braithwaite, in turn, reminds me of Sylvie Guillem).

The balcony love duet scene music is kept—lovely shoulder lifts and happy faces—but much of the rest is rejigged. Prokofiev’s "Dance of the Knights" is used again and again for the company dances, as is the "Mandolin Dance". Re-orchestrated into a cinematic soundscape by Terry Davies for a fifteen-strong orchestra, Prokofiev’s extracts take on Wagnerian motifs (I always think of Wagner as the first big screen composer).

The tragic end comes fast. (Spoiler alert…) Tybalt shoots Mercutio offstage, and the whole ‘school’ avenges his death, but Romeo is the one left standing with the incriminating strangling belt in his hands, as the others melt away. Juliet goes off her head, is medicated, takes a knife to bed, and when she thinks she sees the dead Tybalt, knifes him. You can imagine who that is. So ends the sad tale of Romeo and Juliet, who never had a chance.

The tragedy of youth, the Shakespearean tragedy of flawed humanity brought to life for the modern age. Under two hours long with an interval after the second act, which makes for a long first and a short second half.

My companion hears someone say it is ‘forced rhubarb’—an interesting idea. I hear someone comment how slick it is. Maybe both are right. Dance theatre has to speak louder than words. What it does best is channel emotion. And, in this case, boundless youthful energy.

I see elements of Giselle in Juliet’s mad scene, and Coppélia automata in the group dances. As well as Bourne’s swans. And I wonder if the ‘spaceship’ overhead disco light will descend and whisk them away to a place of safety. If only…

Bourne has a palpable hit on his hands, again. Though not his best (I like his early work), Romeo and Juliet confronts a contemporary problem of maligned youth, and provides a leg up for many promising talents on the stage and behind it. Isn’t he a legend…

Not only that, but a thousand £10 tickets are available during the month-long run to 16- to 30-year-old Barclays Dance Pass holders. Registration to Barclays Dance Pass is free.

There are no booking fees, and registered Barclays Dance Pass holders can buy two tickets per production: a win-win situation, unlike poor Romeo and Juliet’s.

Reviewer: Vera Liber

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