DanceDramaReviewSouth East

Romeo and Juliet – Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury

Director & Choreographer: Sir Matthew Bourne

Music: Sergei Prokofiev

Reviewer: Victoria Bawtree

Romeo and Juliet is the New Adventures production company’s latest premiere and, as you might expect, it leaves tradition behind and reimagines the classic story in a way that leaves its audience experiencing something oddly familiar but strangely new.

The luscious plum-coloured curtain that hangs at the beginning of the production falls dramatically, leaving only the stark contrast of black and white. Segregation is clear from the outset with the set of the ‘Verona Institute’ suggesting a cross between a school and sanatorium in which young men and women are allowed contact only under the strictest supervision. Knowing the story leaves the audience wondering where the conflict is going to arise: between male and female or between youth and authority? Despite familiar characters and a familiar tragedy, this production still surprises and twists in ways that feel unexpected and chilling.

Prokofiev’s original score will be well-known to many by its full orchestral colours and distinctive melodies. In this production, the score maintains its vibrancy and the instruments remain acoustic, but the symphony orchestra is reduced to a chamber ensemble of 15 players, several of whom are required to double on two instruments. The orchestration, by Terry Davies, remains largely true to the original but it creates new and contemporary colours through some unusual instrumental combinations. While the lack of a symphony orchestra and the necessary amplification takes a little getting used to, ultimately it is entirely in sync with the dystopian world portrayed on stage.

Juliet (Cordelia Braithwaite) has been singled-out at the Institute by Tybalt, a guard (Dan Wright) and early on it is clear that she has to suffer and submit to his advances. Romeo (Paris Fitzpatrick) arrives at the Institute with his powerful but indifferent parents as an awkward teenager who is immediately mocked by the cool kids, led by Mercutio (Danny Collins) and Balthasar, Mercutio’s boyfriend (Jackson Fisch). This scene, accompanied by Prokofiev’s fast and playful Juliet as a young girl, is one of several clever (and frequently funny) moments where the music allows a more contemporary portrayal of Shakespeare’s original characters. Rev. Bernadette Laurence (Madelaine Brennan) is doing her best to be ‘down with the cool kids’, also providing moments of humour as well as becoming the go-between between youth and authority.

Romeo and Juliet do meet at a dance – this one with beautifully observed choreography beginning with awkward teenagers sticking to the wall of the hall before reluctantly joining pairs while being watched by the staff. When the adults leave, however, the young people are quick to show their true colours, giving Romeo and Juliet the opportunity to be on their own. Here, the choreography is breathless and urgent: he is allowed to be as giddy as she is, creating a wild and sensuous scene embodying young love beautifully.

Since Sir Matthew Bourne’s 2014 production of Lord of the Flies, New Adventures has become associated with nurturing new talent and in Romeo and Juliet six young dancers aged 16-19 local to each city on the tour perform alongside the young professional cast. There is no way of telling amateur and professional apart in this performance. Its success must be largely down to the work of Bourne’s considerable production team – from orchestrators and conductors through lighting, costume and sound designers to choreographers and directors – many of whom are also ‘young’ associates in their own right. This commitment to encouraging young creative people is both unique and vital to providing realistic opportunities in the Arts. Long may it continue.

Runs until 21 September 2019 and continues to tour | Image: Johan Persson

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