Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet – Saddler’s Wells, London

Choreographer/Director: Matthew Bourne

Music: Sergei Prokofiev

Reviewer: Sophia Moss

In the not so distant future, a group of young men and women dance in pairs underneath a UFO-shaped chandelier. The dancing is rigid and stiff under the watchful eye of the uniformed guards – one hand up, one hand on wait and box step -, but turns into a loose, writhing display of sexuality the second the authority figures disappear. In the middle stands red-headed Juliet (Cordelia Braithwaite) and Romeo (Paris Fitzpatrick) who slowly orbit each other in wonder. It’s a classic case of young love: there’s a lot of pining, secret meetups and, in this case, murder and suicide.

Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet is set in the dystopian ‘Verona Institute’ – an all-white prison/hospital for troubled young people which reminds one of Orange Is The New Black and One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest.The walls, beds and most of the costumes are all white – a theme which is practical but also symbolic of a clinical, sterile environment.

Rather than having two families at war with each other, Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet are at war with the Institute which keeps them apart. The first scenes focus on Juliet being sexually assaulted by Tybalt (Dan Wright), a guard who chases her, picks her up and pulls her through the ‘office’ door. Romeo is the son of Senator and Mrs Montague (Matt Petty and Daisy May Kemp) who don’t seem to have the time or patience to deal with their troubled son.

The theme of youthful rebellion is as prominent in this performance as it is in the original text – but this time it is rebellion against a hypocritical, violent guard and a wider institution which allows them to be abused.

Prokofiev’s music score has been reworked with a smaller orchestra which keeps the original score but on a more intimate scale. Bourne’s dancers are not silent – in the violent scenes you can hear them whimper, or gasp – which makes the violence feel more real. A turn of the head or a snap of the arms is perfectly timed to the beat for comic or dramatic effect and the smallest of movements garner as much attention as the more complex routines. It would be redundant to single out one or two dancers because they all perform with incredibly high standards.

Sometimes the dancers leap and run, arms wide and feet flexed, as they express their need to escape. Other times, their arms, heads and bodies move in rigid isolating. Bourne combines loose contemporary movements with isolations, ballet, lifts, mime and even tap– as always, he merges genres to create something fresh and unique.

As always, Matthew Bourne takes a well-known story and reimagines it to create something fresh and unique. There are parts of Romeo and Juliet which are confusing and leave you thinking ‘wait, what just happened?!’, but overall it is an engaging and exciting show which will be enjoyed by classical enthusiasts and first-timers alike.

Runs until 31 August, 2019 | Image: Johan Persson

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