Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet

William Shakespeare adapted by Matthew Bourne, music by Sergei Prokofiev arranged by Terry Davies
New Adventures
The Lowry, Salford

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Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet Credit: Johan Persson
Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet Credit: Johan Persson
Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet Credit: Johan Persson
Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet Credit: Johan Persson
Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet Credit: Johan Persson
Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet Credit: Johan Persson

The lunatics might not have taken over the asylum in Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet, but it is a near thing. The purpose of The Verona Institute is unclear, but it seems to be less a place for treating mental health and more a location where the elite can dump children who have become an embarrassment. The residents certainly behave as if they are accustomed to having their own way lolling around the stage and mocking any employee who tries to gain their interest.

However, the brutal security guard Tybalt (Danny Reubens) exploits the lax procedures at the Institute to indulge in his taste for sexually humiliating male and female patients. Perhaps over-estimating her own mental resilience or under-estimating Tybalt’s depravity, titian-haired Juliet (Cordelia Braithwaite) offers herself to distract him from picking on others. Traumatised by the brutal experience, Juliet finds hope and the possibility of love in newcomer Romeo (Paris Fitzpatrick).

Despite being based upon the greatest love story ever told, Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet is more about the fragility of mental health than passion. The rape of Juliet is problematic. It sets up a wonderfully tormented performance from Danny Reubens as the self-loathing Tybalt, but also defines Juliet as a victim. Instead of a brave young woman capable of defying her parents and the conventions of her society, she is someone in need of healing—and finds Romeo as possible balm for her trauma.

Romeo is more introverted eccentric / goofy clown than hot-headed lover. His involvement of Juliet in the killing of Tybalt is intended to offer her some cathartic release, but has disastrous consequences. The bawdy relationship which Shakespeare set up between Romeo and his mates is extended to apply to all the residents, who band together in a subversive group, undermining the authority of the ineffective institute officials.

Bourne’s choreography emphasises the issues with which the characters struggle, particularly Braithwaite’s anguished solo. The duet between Braithwaite and Fitzpatrick is more about comfort than consummation—desire is a secondary consideration.

Audaciously, although Prokofiev’s Dance of the Knights provides the background for a number of scenes, it is not used to suggest a dramatic confrontation between sworn enemies. A ritualised exercise session becomes a display of passive-aggressive defiance and an opportunity for Tybalt to select his prey. Later, the dance becomes far more seductive and sensual.

Although the ballet is set in the near future, the tone is distinctly old-fashioned. Lez Brotherston’s brutal set takes inspiration from municipal buildings in the 1950s. With colourless tiled walls and entrances for girls and boys, the Institute resembles an outdated swimming pool. Likewise, the social activities organised by the over-cheerful Rev Bernadette Laurence start out like something from the TV series Hi-de-Hi! before the residents rebelliously shift the mood to more romantic activities.

Matthew Bourne’s radical reworking of the classic daringly shifts Romeo and Juliet from struggling against the confines of their society to coping with their internal demons and trying to find healing as much as love.

Reviewer: David Cunningham

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