Saturday 18 May 2019

Matthew Bourne's Romeo + Juliet

Curve, Leicester
17th May, 2019

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is arguably the most influential work in the English canon, inspiring artworks, novels, musicals, ballets and the English language itself. The tale of star-crossed lovers is universally appealing, and Matthew Bourne and New Adventures' latest retelling is just as captivating. Taking Prokofiev’s 1938 ballet as a starting point, Bourne and co. have adapted the narrative to suit a modern age of toxic oppression.

With those resounding opening notes of Prokofiev’s immense ‘Montagues and Capulets’ we are thrown into the stark and oppressive world of the Verona Institute, a correctional facility for troubled young men and women. Girls and Boys are segregated, trapped within designer Lez Brotherston’s cage of chain-link fencing and sanitised, morgue-esque tiled walls. They are medicated, schooled and disciplined – their only social outlet being occasional balls where they’re forced to dance in ‘proper’ fashion. Officer Tybalt (Dan Wright) has taken an unsavoury interest in the disturbed and vulnerable Juliet (Cordelia Braithwaite), as a result she becomes withdrawn, often isolated from her fellow inmates and friends. Meanwhile, a wealthy and famous couple are concerned about the wellbeing of their son, Romeo (Paris Fitzpatrick), consigning him to Verona where he soon pals up with the impish trio of Benvolio, Mercutio and his boyfriend, Balthasar. Eyes meet across the atrium-cum-ballroom, and Romeo and Juliet fall for each other against a backdrop of dirty dancing and overbearing state scrutiny.

Bourne has homed in on not two warring families, but a war between master and subject; a war of freedom of identity versus political propriety; this is a youth in revolt. Yet the ultimate tragedy resides in the internal conflict Romeo and Juliet have with their mental health (exacerbated by the incorrect care/treatment demonstrated at Verona). Juliet is scarred and haunted by the tyrannical Tybalt to the point where she is blinded to the world around her. The result is sadder than anything Shakespeare wrote. Bourne has created a powerful statement on the irresponsible and inexcusable neglect of our youth. We live in a society where more young people than ever before suffer from mental health issues, and while these issues are definitely getting more publicity, there remains a sense that those in power – local and national authorities, adults, carers – are unsympathetic and/or ignorant. Romeo and Juliet is what happens when vulnerable children are let down by those that they should be able to trust.

This message really packs a punch considering just how young Bourne’s assembled company seem. Fitzpatrick and Braithwaite perfectly capture a wide-eyed innocence while also suffering the unspeakable anguish of pain, guilt and love. Reece Causton’s Mercutio is full of adolescent bravado, blind courage and flirtatious charm, while Jackson Fisch brings a gentle melancholy to his grieving Balthasar and Hannah Mason’s Frenchie brims with a childlike spunky energy. The company should also be commended on their initiative to incorporate six local dancers (aged 16 – 19) into the ensemble at each venue. It is the greatest praise to say that until the curtain call I could not have separated these talented young men and women from the professional dancers with whom they shared the stage. It’s fantastic to see Bourne nurturing the next generation of dancers.

Bourne’s choreography is typically flawless. From the mechanical stiffness of the daily Verona routine to melting pas de deux with our winsome lovers, Bourne is a master of storytelling, infusing every motion with feeling, empathy and individuality of character. Not to lower the tone, but Romeo + Juliet features probably the best ‘kissing’ choreography I’ve witnessed; the constant contact maintained by Braithwaite and Fitzpatrick while twirling, climbing and leaping is a feat of physical dexterity that left me in awe. Oh, and it’s bloomin’ romantic to boot!

Yet, quite rightly, romance is not the main takeaway sentiment of this version of Romeo and Juliet. Rather, I felt disturbed by the fates of these characters that are at once pitifully naïve while also knowing and being subjected to things that no child (or adult, for that matter) should be. This is a wakeup call to the conscious and unconscious abuse of children and adolescents – psychological, sexual, physical – that plagues our society. The litter of bloodied bodies at the close is hideously inevitable, tragic and unjust. Bravo.

Romeo + Juliet plays at Curve, Leicester until 18th May 2019.

For full UK tour details please visit:

Cordelia Braithwaite and Paris Fitzpatrick in Romeo + Juliet.
Credit: Johan Persson.