Romeo + Juliet – Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Reviewed by Dominic Corr

Director: Matthew Bourne

Choreographer: Matthew Bourne

Music: Sergei Prokofiev

Whether viewed as a weakness, a strength, an eternal yearning which completes us, or a distraction, its various forms of love will never feel the same for any two people – so the complexity in capturing its nuances and impacts can only be captured by a few. Shakespeare’s story of the star-crossed lovers Juliet Capulet and Romeo Montague doomed from the beginning, is one such tale.

Mathew Bourne is noted for making alterations to the source material. Often the accompanying juxtaposition flourishes into a refreshing and challenging piece which rejuvenates a passion for movement and captivates new audiences experiencing these ‘dusty’ stories in a new light. Returning four years after its premiere,Romeo + Juliet’spenetration into the psyche of youth, power, love and torment, in ways, is as true to Shakespeare’s ultimate tragedy as it could be.

That’s the force within Bourne’s creation: even those who may not be personal fans of what has been crafted cannot deny the sheer nerve and aptitude in pushing the boundaries of the traditional art form to new telling. The tone, occasionally, can be jarring – more so than the jittering and sharp movements. Sequences of sexual assault sit side-by-side to comedic routines, the necessary levity understandable, if a touch crass.

This clinical structure, designed by Lez Brotherston, without a trace of colour outside of the ‘Verona Institute’ painted in bold black atop the walls, works as a beautifully blank canvas for the production: cold, unfeeling, but enabling the few instances of colour (chiefly that of crimson, unsurprisingly) to strike out. Allure is the ultimate power within these cells, it’s the one thing that the wardens and doctors cannot control – even those who take it by force. Sexual, physical, romantic, even platonic and the use of love as a survival tool are all visible in this cold and unfeeling panoptical asylum designed to incarcerate the unwanted problem youths.

Equally clad in white, awaiting their grim fate, the youthful gaze in these lovers is magnificently captured in Cordelia Braithwaite and Rory Macleod. In both choreographed movement and performance, the Shakespearean element of conventional performance exists in flickering moments as the pair communicate everything with unspoken movement and expression. The initial bewilderment of doe-eyes grounds Romeo in a naïve innocence of youth as Macleod transitions from a young man into a weary and broken one, his bouncing and nervous energy channelled into a purposeful, occasionally violent, command of space.

All the while Juliet is plagued by the eyes of someone who has suffered. A woman no older than her peers but with the weight of an entire life pressing down on her soul. It leads to a somewhat darker twist than even the original’s infamous ending, one which alters the preconceptions of love versus guilt in Juliet’s final act. And the power in this choice ripples throughout, staying with the audience. Braithwaite becomes the centre of the production, her convulsions and explosions of Bourne’s tight choreography a marvel: their duets with Danny Reubens’ sleazy and abusive Tybalt a stark contrast to their more equal footing with Braithwaite, the pair turning in a wonderfully inventive take on the famous balcony scene turned into a quasi-prison escape as the pair duck and dodge the torches and gaze of the guards.

Framed by Prokofiev’s defining score, manipulated by Terry Davies to incorporate the sirens and clatters of the institute, Bourne once more challenges the preconceptions of form, both that of Shakespeare’s narrative and traditional ballet. This is an incarnation of the tale that bathes itself in the psyche of passion, saturating its crisp-white innocence in crimson streaks. It won’t be to everyone’s taste – but it should command everyone’s attention with its compelling energy and spontaneous movement.

Runs until 23 September 2023, then continues on tour | Image: Johan Persson

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