Mathew Bourne's  Romeo +  Juliet

Rape, homophobic bullying, knife crime and murder in a mental health/correctional institute, Mathew Bourne's Romeo+Juliet is probably the most shocking and bold of his re-imaginings of famous classical ballets. Prokofiev’s music is reworked by Terry Davies for a small chamber orchestra of 15 players. This is no-holds-barred production, a new version of his 2019 New Adventures one, where Bourne grabs attention with his sense of drama and a reinterpretation relevant to today’s society. Shakespeare’s essential story of intense adolescent love is still there. Juliet (Cordelia Braithwaite) is no wall-flower, but feisty and strong-willed. Romeo (Rory Macleod) is a dewy-eyed, gentle but troubled youth, but this is not about warring families, the Montagues and Capulets, but more about youth V abusive control by the authorities.

A sense of drama and a reinterpretation relevant to today’s society

The opening scene reveals the lovers, blood-drenched, lying together on what might be a mortuary slab setting the tone of the whole show. The ballet then flashbacks to white-clad youths dancing in regimented style to Prokofiev’s No.13, the Dance of the Knights, Montague and Capulet's march (which is threaded throughout the performance) with its ominous pounding beats. The strength and aggression of these moves are gripping with straight arms thrust out in one direction then another and jerking turns.

Coercive control is echoed in the stunning set by Lez Brotherston: all white, glazed tiles dominated by a huge oval light, like an all-seeing eye. A raised walkway where the guards can survey the inmates is also magically re-used for the balcony scene.

A do-gooder, but ineffectual chaplain (Shakespeare’s nurse and friar rolled into one) provides welcome moments of humour from Daisy May Kemp. The inhouse social organised by her shows the inmates dancing in stiff ballroom-like moves, but when the guards disappear for a few minutes, dirty dancing à la Grease takes over. This is a wonderful contrast to the still moment of Romeo and Juliet’s first real encounter, standing in the middle of the dance floor sprinkled by glitter ball lights. Later, Romeo and Juliet swoop up and down the stairs to the balcony or up and down the metal hand-holds on the walls, still enwrapped in each other in a swooning kiss which goes on for ever. Braithwaite and Macleod are overwhelming in this ecstatic dance.

More variety of mood is provided by Daisy May Kemp again as the wife of a Senator, fully abetting him in getting their troublesome son, Romeo, locked away not to embarrass him during his political campaign. The three lads Balthasar (Leonardo McCorkindale), Mercutio (Ben Brown) and Benvolio (Euan Garrett) who rag Romeo on arrival, stripping him of his outdoor clothes and dressing him in the white uniform also create some fun. A love relationship between Balthasar and Mercutio is a nice re-interpretation and Mercutio’s murder by Tybalt is therefore homophobic - another relevant nod to issues of our times.

The story takes a darker turn. Juliet endures rape by the brutal tattooed guard, Tybalt (a malevolent Danny Reubans performed with striking presence) while her friend, Frenchie, an invented character (movingly danced by Blue Makwana), is distraught outside the door, unable to save her.

Act One is superb but Act Two is not so successful with its mixture of dull choreography for the depressed inmates and violence. Juliet’s rape provides the motive for the violent murder of Tybalt that is to follow and so this retelling of this tale can be justified. However, some of the audience, including this reviewer, might find it descends into melodrama. The tragedy of Romeo and Juliet’s death is just one more in a series of violent acts and it loses its pathos. Shakespeare might not be turning in his grave but he might wince.

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Reviews by Stephanie Green

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The Blurb

Matthew Bourne's Romeo and Juliet returns in Summer 2023

After dazzling audiences when it was first staged in 2019, Romeo and Juliet now joins the New Adventures repertoire alongside the very best of Bourne’s world-renowned dance theatre productions.

Experience Shakespeare’s timeless story of forbidden love with a scintillating injection of raw passion and youthful vitality. Confined against their will by a society that seeks to divide, our two young lovers must follow their hearts as they risk everything to be together. A masterful re-telling of an ageless tale of teenage discovery and the madness of first love.

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