Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet

WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS!

In his continued quest to reinvent the world of classical ballet, Matthew Bourne’s new target is Romeo and Juliet. As he said in the bonus post-show talk at The Lowry on Wednesday evening, it’s a work that has been ‘done to death’ – not just in dance form, but on screen too. After over four hundred years of retellings, can anyone put a fresh stamp on the timeless story of star-crossed lovers?

If you’re Matthew Bourne, the answer is yes. His version is set in the cold, clinical world of the Verona Institute, peopled by patients and nurses in stark white costumes. Ceiling height wire fencing surrounds the stage, and two archways in the white tiled wall marked ‘Boys’ and ‘Girls’ indicate the division that causes strife. No feuding Montagues and Capulets here.

It’s fascinating to see how this premise affects the story. The separated boys and girls don’t fight each other, but conspire to meet, avoiding the watchful eye of the establishment. Parent figures are largely absent (with the exception of Romeo’s celebrity mother and father, who check him in to the institute with no remorse.) The hothousing of Romeo and Juliet’s relationship isn’t caused by an impending arranged marriage, but by the oppression of their environment – embodied in the menacing guard, who serves economically as both a Paris and Tybalt figure, stalking Juliet’s every move and ultimately raping her.

One of the few similarities with the classical ballet is Prokofiev’s famous score, but it’s not quite as you might expect. Terry Davies’ orchestration for fifteen musicians strips the lush sound back, warping it into a dark, eerie soundtrack that perfectly complements the setting – from the patients’ staccato march to the iconic Dance of the Knights, to their drug-induced convulsions to the traditionally light-hearted Dance with the Mandolins. Bourne’s productions always make excellent use of existing ballet scores, and this one was certainly worth getting special permission from the Prokofiev estate for. Having musicians playing it live in the theatre is an added bonus.

Big set pieces are built around key moments in the plot. The Capulets’ masked ball is revisioned as a disturbingly wholesome party experiment, complete with disco ball, pink and blue balloons and dressed up patients dancing in couples at arm’s length. The balcony scene – the high point in the classical ballet version – is like an energetic game of cat and mouse, as the two young lovers chase each other around the stage, frantically kissing and touching. Having a cast of young performers – both local dancers and recent graduates to the New Adventures company – gives this production an amazing energy and it’s wonderful to see so many new faces getting their professional debuts.

Violence plays a key role but is never gratuitous. A drunken, jealous Tybalt threatens the lovers with a gun and Mercutio gets caught in the crossfire; in revenge, the patients rise up and strangle the guard with his own belt – a dramatic, eye-opening climax for the first half. Having removed the guard from the equation, the only obstacle to the lovers’ happiness is physical separation – but when they are finally reunited, Juliet’s past trauma resurfaces as the ghost of her rapist returns to haunt her. Seizing a knife, she lashes out at the vision and accidentally stabs Romeo before turning the weapon on herself in despair. This unintentional murder-suicide is a particularly cruel twist on the lovers’ deaths, and the liberal use of vivid blood smeared over the white set and costumes gives the tragedy a horrific edge. There’s even a nod to the famous pas de deux from Kenneth MacMillan’s version, when Romeo ‘dances’ with Juliet’s lifeless body – here, in classic Bourne style, the gender roles are reversed as Juliet attempts to duet with her dying lover.

This really is Romeo and Juliet as only Matthew Bourne could tell it – stripping back all the detail of character, music and plot to reveal a dark story driven by passion, violence and energy; excellently scored; slickly and beautifully staged; and with just enough shock factor to make you sit up and go ‘wow, that’s different.’

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