Review: Matthew Bourne’s “Romeo and Juliet”

Fresh, dynamic and bursting with life, Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet is an electric reimagining of a classic tale.

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is generally considered to be one of the greatest love stories in the English literary tradition. Written in the late 1500s, this iconic tale of star cross’d lovers continues to be enjoyed across the globe. Whether it be Shakespeare’s traditional play, Baz Lurhmann’s innovative film or Kenneth MacMillan’s poignant ballet, we are all familiar with the tragedy in some way or another.

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Sir Matthew Bourne, choreographer extraordinaire, has built his reputation upon innovative re-workings of classic tales. Perhaps most famously, his 1995 interpretation of Swan Lake broke boundaries by replacing the female corps-de-ballet with a striking male ensemble. More recently, Bourne has produced ground-breaking productions of Lord of the Flies, Edward Scissorhands and Cinderella to name but a few. Whilst Bourne has been hoping to re-create Romeo and Juliet for many years, it is only now, in 2019, that he has finally done it. The outcome, it’s fair to say, does not disappoint.

Central to Bourne’s interpretation is the notion of youth. Bourne’s cast is primarily made up of young dancers, most at the beginning of their professional careers. Moreover, the influence of the young creatives, for instance 22-year-old Associate Choreographer Arielle Smith, can be traced throughout. The result is a production that is fresh and dynamic, bursting with energy and adolescent vivacity.

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On the whole, it is left to the audience to make up their own mind about where and when this story exists. We know only that it is set in the Verona Institute – a part psychiatric hospital, part young offenders’ institution – in a world where love is forbidden, and emotions suppressed. The inmates move in regimented unison against a clinical backdrop of white tiled walls and towering iron fences. They march and protest to Prokofiev’s iconic score, reworked and re-orchestrated by Terry Davies to create a sharper and cleaner sound. The energy and punch produced as the young dancers pace to the pounding rhythm of “Dance of the Knights” is impossible to forget.

What is striking about Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet is its rejection of the themes most commonly associated with Shakespeare’s play. The Capulets and Montagues, the two families famously at war, are nowhere to be seen within Bourne’s reimagining. Rather, this a tale about young people resisting an oppressive system and rising up against the dominant authorities in control.

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Romeo (Andrew Monaghan/Paris Fitzpatrick), a pervasively awkward teenager, enters the Institute after he is abandoned by his high-flying political parents who fear he will threaten their ability to gain votes in the upcoming election. Here he is captivated by Juliet (Seren Williams/Cordelia Braithwaite), a complex character grappling with her inner demons. It becomes apparent early on in the production that Juliet is being sexually abused by Tybalt (Danny Reubens/Dan Wright), a brutish and thuggish guard at the Institute; the image of Juliet’s hand pressed up against the frosted glass, is one which haunts the performance right until its end.

Some of Bourne’s most innovative choreography emerges in his exploration of love and desire. The iconic masquerade ball is reimagined as a frigid school disco, with couples supervised under the watchful eye of the adults. However, the event transforms into a raunchy rave following the adults’ departure – no longer stiff and sterile, the teenagers’ movements explode with passionate intensity. Equally remarkable is Bourne’s interpretation of the iconic balcony scene. Here, Romeo and Juliet perform an epic pas de deux, moving fluidly as one across the stage whilst simultaneously ensuring that their lips remain locked. The couple barely come up for air in what must be one of the longest kiss sequences British contemporary dance has ever seen.

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Yet, the biggest shock of the production has to be its ending (no spoilers here). When an alcohol-infused Tybalt arrives on the scene, it is evident that tragedy is about to strike. In a whirlwind of terror, panic and madness, we see Juliet trapped in her nightmares, unable to escape the horrors that haunt her. The finale that follows is one that no-one could imagine …

Once again, Sir Matthew Bourne has successfully reinvented a classic tale in the most extraordinary way. Fuelled by electric dynamism and driven by untamed energy, this thrilling reimagining of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is certainly not to be missed.

Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet will be screened in cinemas across the UK on Tuesday October 22nd.

– Holly Van Ryssen

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