If you’re lucky enough to get a ticket to see Matthew Bourne’s brilliant, bold, utterly beautiful Romeo and Juliet at the Leicester Curve, I have one piece of advice: forget what you think you know about this story. Prokofiev’s magical score is there, of course, along with the essential cadences and themes of Shakespeare’s tale, but this production is telling its own story and fully deserves to be judged on its own merits without any preconceptions.
We meet the ill-fated lovers not in an Italian city but in the mysterious “Verona Institute” – an anonymous containment centre for disaffected youth staffed by strict orderlies, run on regimented tedium and decked out in clinical white, from the gender-segregated entrance signs to the uniforms of both staff and inmates. It’s the first sign that this is not going to follow the Shakespearean letter when we realise that the central conflict is not between two rival families, but between the figureheads of this borstal and their young charges.
It’s a daring change, but one that frees this production to explore a whole range of ideas and modes of expression while still remaining true to the core concerns of the play. In particular, the setting allows for a re-focusing of the production on youth – its energy, its hopes, its desires and its clashes with older authority. From the first moment, as this effervescent young company takes us through the mind-numbing routines of their institutional home – now in military formation, now jerking in unison like demented marionettes – we can sense their desperate desire for liberation lurking not far beneath the surface. Even if we didn’t know what was to come, it’s clear that this is a world about to be severely disrupted.
Disruption comes, of course, through the meeting of Juliet (Cordelia Braithwaite) with Romeo (Paris Fitzpatrick), which proves a catalyst for rebellion against the oppressive Institute, personified by abusive guard Tybalt (Richard Winsor). All three are absolutely captivating in their roles, as much for their acting ability as for their dance technique. Braithwaite and Fitzpatrick particularly excel in their duet sequences, which manage to simultaneously capture an exquisite beauty of movement and the essence of hormone-driven teenage lust. (One particular sequence, when the two leads perform a range of complex moves while locked at the lips, must have taken extraordinary dedication to perfect without injuring either party.)
The company as a whole is simply a joy to watch. Bourne’s choreography slips seamlessly from romantic to menacing to light-hearted fun, following Prokofiev’s rhythms, and each is equally successful. On the lighter side, the trio of Harry Ondrak-Wright, Cameron Flynn and Jackson Fisch as Mercutio, Benvolio and Balthasar capture teenage high jinx perfectly – most enjoyably when they team up with Daisy May Kemp’s ever-so-slightly-camp Reverend Bernardette Lawrence. At the other end of the spectrum, the pared-back choreography used at the opening of Act 2 to convey the group’s shock and bewilderment at the recent violence is devastating. And the moment when, momentarily free of surveillance, the group give themselves over for a few brief seconds to their long-repressed hormonal urges, is shocking in both its frankness and its power.
The climax wisely eschews the complex goings-on of Shakespeare with a much simpler ending which fits both the medium and style of the production perfectly, culminating in a final, agonising dance between the two leads. Like everything that has come before it, it has an emotional rawness and truthfulness that chimes perfectly with the subject of first love and all its overwhelming sensations.
There’s a sense that perhaps the company and the venue haven’t quite gelled entirely yet – on at least two occasions, a tender moment between the leads was interrupted by a stagehand very visibly making their way through the wings – but no doubt these will be ironed out quickly. Minor quibbles aside, this is an utterly captivating production that, for all its liberties with the story, is true to the heart and spirit of Shakespeare and to the universal themes that make it resonate. It’s a showcase for an astonishingly talented and dedicated young company of dancers whom it was a privilege to watch perform. And most of all, it’s a deeply moving theatrical experience that keeps its audience enraptured from beginning to end.
Romeo and Juliet is showing at the Leicester Curve until 8 July.