This story of two star crossed lovers has been performed in every medium imaginable, so it was inevitable that our greatest choreographer Matthew Bourne would at some stage be lured by Sergei Prokofiev’s iconic ballet score.
Be warned this is far from a straight scene by scene version of the Bard’s masterpiece, and Bourne’s interpretation sets this ageless tragedy in the near future. Romeo and Juliet are inmates in the Verona Institute, which might be a closed psychiatric unit for troubled teenagers, or a young offenders institute. That’s up to you, but it has echoes of The Handmaid’s Tale, although the battle between the inmates and the establishment that acts as a surrogate for Shakespeare’s familial conflict is more reminiscent of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
Into this antiseptic hell falls Romeo, dumped by his politician parents into a world where Juliet is being abused by brutal guard Tybalt, and the countdown to tragedy begins.
The masterstroke in this production that retains key part of the original text is the quite brilliant paring down of Prokofiev’s familiar orchestral score by Terry Davies to a smaller chamber piece for 17 players. Davies is faithful to Prokofiev, but this more intimate arrangement allows Bourne to create much sharper and edgier chorography danced with incredible physicality and emotion by a strong ensemble cast of emerging talent. The March of the Knights cleverly introduces the characters as they weave around each other on Lez Brotherston’s bleak set under Paule Constable’s stark lighting.
Ballet is perfectly suited to capturing the angst and restlessness of adolescence, and as these youngsters are caged it allows for a much rawer chorography than perhaps New Adventures fans are used to. At times it is tough going as the company never shy away from the abuse the teen prisoners suffer and the mental health issues they are dealing with.
Rory Macleod and Monique Jonas as the doomed lovers really inhabit the complex lovers, and their duets are full of passion and confusion, especially when they realise they are in love offering a sensual dance that is full of classic adolescent yearning, but a million miles away from the chasteness of the original. Yet both versions take on the human cost of repression and social constricts, but in very different ways artistically.
There is some serious young talent on display here with Ben Brown’s Mercutio full of mischief and pathos. His dances with the equally talented Jackson Fisch and Euan Garrett as his partners in crime Bathasar and Benvolio are gorgeous and moving. Of the more experienced performers Cordelia Braitwhaite brings real humanity to the kindly Rev. Bernadette Laurence, and Danny Reubens dances so well as the dastardly Tybalt that he earns a knowing round of boos at curtain call.
Matthew Bourne has blended a retooled classic score with a vibrant young cast that puts a classic we all thought we knew firmly into our age where adolescents around the globe wrestle with their emotions in the full glare of the digital age.
And after all that fierce, all consuming fire of first love is a universal experience wherever we may live.
Matthew Bourne’s Romeo & Juliet is at Bradford Alhambra until Saturday 16th September. To book www.braford-theatres.co.uk or 01274 432000.
Reviewer: Paul Clarke
Reviewed: 12th September 2023
North West End UK Rating: