The title says Romeo and Juliet, but it’s best to set aside all your expectations about what that might imply because Matthew Bourne has gone for a radical remodelling of the story and the Prokofiev score. Our setting is the Verona Institute in the near future. Here disturbed young people have been locked up for an opaque purpose under the eye of a sadistic jailer, with the girls rather inadequately separated from the boys. A traumatised Juliet meets a troubled Romeo, and it ends as badly as you might expect.
Of course there have been many danced versions of the story before, but almost all, like West Side Story, retain the context of two rival clans rendering love impossible. Here there are no rival warring families, and without that, the sense of transcendent love against all odds is muted. It’s performed with great conviction, and Bourne displays all his usual ingenuity, verve and theatrical flair. Oddly though, it’s not as moving as you might expect, and not for me as transfixing as his best work can be. Most of the audience would disagree with that view: they gave it a standing ovation.
There was a particularly strong reception for the Mercutio (Ben Brown) who had rushed to the theatre at the last minute as the original cast member had been injured very early on in the show. The performance was stopped and restarted with commendable professionalism within ten minutes or so. In these circumstances, everyone wants things to go well, and the performers re-established the mood very quickly.
The purpose of the Verona Institute is deliberately vague, but the young inmates there lead regimented lives, presided over by the authoritarian jailer Tybalt. The other authority figures are a doctor and a nurse (always sinister and malevolent figures in Bourne) who hand out medication and sourly inspect their charges. The inmates really are young. Bourne has drafted in six young associate artists aged between 16 and 19, different at each tour venue, to swell the ranks of the corps. It’s very much to their credit that they blend in with Bourne’s more experienced team members so well.
The action plays out on Lez Brotherston’s ingenious two-tier set with multiple interconnecting staircases, good for scrambling up or hiding behind. Doors marked boys and girls can be locked shut by metal gates. All of it is gleaming white, and the tiled surfaces allow both reflections and giant shadows of the dancers to register. (The excellent lighting is by Paule Constable). The inmates are all in similar white uniforms: it makes the point that individuality is being suppressed here, but it also makes it quite difficult to follow some of the minor characters. It’s a relief that Juliet has brilliant red hair to make her immediately visible.
Tybalt’s despotic rule is softened by the efforts of the Reverend Bernadette Laurence, who has a much more sympathetic eye for her charges. Dan Wright’s Tybalt is the most vivid character on stage by some distance. His anger and bullying behaviour cover his insecurity, and he has moments of vulnerability. He clearly has an unhealthy attraction to Cordelia Braithwaite’s Juliet, running his hands over her. He leads her away from the rest to have his way. She returns later clearly shattered by what has happened to her.
It’s only after this that a gauche, twitchy and awkward Romeo (Paris Fitzpatrick) is admitted to the Institute, signed in by his rich, unfeeling parents, Senator and Mrs Montague. Romeo’s welcoming committee is the trio of the larky Mercutio, his boyfriend Balthazar, and Benvolio. They neatly strip him of his formal wear and clad him in the institute’s white uniform. It’s a pity there is not much sense of interaction between these lads as a group. Only Mercutio gets to register much as a character. He and his boyfriend flaunt their attraction to each other to Tybalt’s fury.
Given that the sexes are supposed to be kept apart it’s a bit odd to find the Rev Laurence arranging a formal dance for the male and female inmates to get together. But it’s a welcome blast of colour in an all-white evening, with the inmates dressed for the ball in fifties frocks or the random items of an eclectic dressing up box. Bourne is always good at social dances and provides here some very decorous moves in front of the Rev which rapidly transform into something much more hot-blooded and dangerous when backs are turned. This is the big moment where Juliet and Romeo meet, but it’s initially low key, no danced fireworks. Later they nuzzle each other and roll on the floor like puppies: it’s an innocent and trusting attraction.
Tybalt is not just furious at discovering the attraction between Romeo and Juliet; he is jealous and anguished too. Rage takes over, and there is a fight scene which ranges all over the set. Bourne is good at orchestrating these dramatic theatrical moments, and this is gripping stuff. Mercutio dies bloodily and the inmates as a body turn on Tybalt, and Romeo and Juliet together dispatch him.
After the interval, Romeo seems to face no consequences for the murder of Tybalt, which seems unlikely. There’s no way this is going to end well, with a traumatised Juliet scrutinising a knife hidden under her pillow, haunted by visions of a vengeful Tybalt. Braithwaite’s Juliet is a stronger character than the inexperienced Romeo, but far more damaged and disturbed. The lovers do get to meet for a final time but Bourne, so good at dances for groups, is less effective at finding steps (rather than acting) that convey the fraught passions of a desperate couple.
The production’s running time is about two hours, including an interval, and it flies by. It’s much shorter than Prokofiev’s original score. This has been chopped and substantially reordered, so that we start with the March of the Knights music from the Capulet ball as the boys and girls of the institute go about their exercises under the watchful eye of the jailer. The same music is used again at least twice, and the mandolin dance features more than once. It’s better not to be distracted by thoughts of where the music conventionally features (difficult, though, if it’s already deeply embedded in your dance going experience). The reorchestration is by Terry Davies, and the music is played live (and loud!) by the modest forces of the New Adventures Orchestra, all multi-instrumentalists, conducted by Brett Morris.
The production is packed with incident and cracks along at a great rate. Bourne has taken powerful contemporary themes of the young’s sense of powerlessness and alienation, their vulnerability to exploitation by those who ought to be looking after them and reengineered the Romeo and Juliet story to express them. But the removal of the warring families leaves our lovers unfortunate rather than star-crossed. It has some terrific theatrical moments, and is done with great verve and commitment, and clearly very popular. Still, I remained impressed rather than moved to tears. But it does make you revisit what you think Romeo and Juliet is all about.