Writer: William Shakespeare
Director and Choreographer: Matthew Bourne
Composer: Sergi Prokoviev
Orchestrator: Terry Davies
We all know how Romeo and Juliet goes by now right? Two teenagers fall in love at first sight, it last three days and five people die? No spoiler alert needed on this 400 year old first-love story.
Matthew Bourne’s Romeo + Juliet is more Baz Luhrmann than Bard, revising both the well know plot and Prokofiev’s original ballet score to bring both up to date and relevant to a modern audience, through the medium of contemporary ballet. The action is moved from Italy to The Verona Institute, a facility which is never truly explained (is it a young offender prison? A boarding school? A shadyStranger Things style science lab?). It is a clear parallel to the kind of place rich American parents send their delinquent youths when they have the audacity to fail Maths, be awkwardly unsociable, or dare to be LGBTQ+. We are immediately introduced to the institutional abuse rampant in such places, as Head Guard Tybalt (Danny Reubens) menaces the young inmates, leering up on and eventually leading away Juliet (Monique Jonas) with obvious intention. Meanwhile Romeo (Paris Fitzpatrick) is brought to the Institute by his Senator parents, and handed over for who knows what reason. Already Bourne has broken away from the traditional story, not just changed the location.
This is what the show does extremely well. There have been a thousand ‘reimaginings’ of Romeo and Juliet where the words are the same, but the setting is shoe-horned into the New York gangland or some concept that doesn’t quite work but looks good. Romeo + Juliet doesn’t need to stick to the text, so is able to rip it up entirely. Whole characters are missing, changed or obscured, the timescale is upped to three weeks (which makes far more sense) and entire scenes are removed – there’s no Mantua misunderstanding for example, which makes the dramatic ending far more believable. And while we’re on the subject of the ending, forget everything you know. The right people still die, but how and why is genuinely shocking. Even someone not well versed in either the script or reading ballet would be able to follow the plot, so well crafted are the individual acts and characters.
The main power of Romeo + Juliet comes from the personality the dancers bring to their roles. Both Jonas and Fitzpatrick are heartbreakingly beautiful to watch, with their portrayal of first love sure to bring a nostalgic smile as it evokes the passion, the rawness and also the naivety of that experience. Reuben’s Tybalt is dripping with menace and mania, and his presence on stage immediately puts the audience on edge. The unambiguous love match of Mercutio (Ben Brown) and Balthazar (Jackson Fisch) is especially rewarding to see unfold, and Fisch’s emotion over Mercutio’s inevitable conclusion is a scene stealer. Unfortunately, it is emotion that so many will miss, as that vignette is set off to one side while a larger scene plays out. At least Mercutio’s final scene is on stage this time, unlike in the original Shakespeare, which has always felt like a disservice to the character. Most importantly, the company dancers representing the rest of the youths each clearly have their own story – the gawky nerdy one, the gender fluid one, the grumpy one – to the point where sometimes it’s more fun to watch them than the plot furthering action. This does occasionally make larger scenes complicated to follow however, as sometimes there is too much personality, especially if you are sat close to the stage so unable to really get a full overview. While there is some full company choreography, most of it is individual or out of synch, which looks suitably manic for the setting, it just makes it hard to watch everything. But that’s a minor complaint. Nine of the dancers in the cast are having their professional debut with this show, and all of them have glittering careers ahead of them.
Shakespeare fan or not, ballet fan or not, it would be impossible to watch Romeo + Juliet and not end up a Matthew Bourne fan. This is the contemporary ballet style that the choreographer is famous for, a breath-taking experience for both established dance fans and newcomers to the artform alike. Highly recommended.
Runs until 7 October 2023