Matthew Bourne’s Romeo + Juliet re-writes both storyline and all expectations of this classic ballet, to produce an astonishing, fresh-out-of-the-box, super-cool production. It shines a spotlight on the lovers, raising their young infatuation to a level of physical obsession, and rounding out their back story to provide psychological motive and tragic resolution.
The radical change to the storyline is a bold move, but creates something entirely new from the bones of the conventional. The setting is the Verona Institute, an indeterminate enclosure, where the young are drugged and restrained, and fraternisation is frowned upon. Juliet is a spirited inmate, defending the more vulnerable, and Romeo the unruly son of bourgeois politicians, locked away to prevent sullying their image, as much as for his own containment. The stage set for the Institute (Lez Brotherston) is reminiscent of a 1950s hospital or sanitorium, with slick metro tiles and curved corners, retro chairs and industrial staircases. With it’s hanging overhead lights and ‘in-mates’ dressed in white jeans and t-shirts, it’s also a-la-mode and oh so chic.
The young cast are absolutely dazzling, bringing energy, passion, pathos and humour to every move. The development of these young artists is central to Bourne’s vision, and includes young associates for almost every production role, alongside the introduction of local dancers recruited for each show on the tour (in Nottingham, Megan Ferguson, Victoria Keal, Sua Tsubokura-Aguiriano, Alistair Fernie, Jaimie Tank and Seirian Griffiths). The fervour with which they express every emotion heightens each scene. From the opening, where they repeat methodically the routines given them by their ‘keepers’, all moving as one, to the panic and tension when the guard, Tybalt (Dan Wright) tries to single out one of the girls.
Tonight’s cast features Cordelia Braithwaite as Juliet and Paris Fitzpatrick as Romeo, and they are breathtaking and heartbreaking in equal measures. Their pas de deux are electrifying, each effortless lift and swooning surrender revealing their passion, but with a playfulness and awkwardness that reminds us they are just teenagers, caught up in something beyond themselves. It’s clearly as emotionally demanding as physically, and one can see the necessity for alternative casts. Mercutio (Danny Collins), Benvolio (Jackson Fisch) and Balthasar (Harrison Dowzell) are here, a trio of lads enjoying their japes and thumbing their nose at authority, and their natural bonhomie and confident bravado draw us in. Dan Wright as Tybalt stands literally head and shoulders above the rest, an aggressive, impulsive predator, at odds with the clinical setting. Wright gives a superb, if chilling, performance, and disturbingly reminds us of the institutionalised abuse in our society.
In creating this new vision, Bourne approached the Prokofiev estate to gain their support in re-arranging the original score. This was partly to reflect the pared down, more modern approach, but also to make it practical to take an orchestra on tour. Terry Davies has orchestrated it and produced a wonderfully haunting adaptation of the original, conducted tonight by Dan Jackson.
This is a radical, new interpretation of the Romeo + Juliet story, brought bang up to date, and focussing on the scary and volatile teenage years. It references mental health and knife crime, and is bloody and brutal, but it also celebrates the intensity of first love and unbridled passion. It is staggeringly beautiful, masterfully choreographed and performed with a rawness and purity that only the young own.
Romeo + Juliet runs at Nottingham Theatre Royal until 5 October.
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