Feeling it was over-performed in multiple mediums, Director/ Choreographer Matthew Bourne resisted taking on Romeo and Juliet for many years. This completely original interpretation joins the iconoclastic ranks of Bourne creations. The Prokofiev Estate allowed musical adjustments- “I felt the lush sound of a big score was inappropriate.” It was purposefully cast very young and is, Bourne warns, “quite free” with the plot which changes setting and era, dispenses with parental feuds, and includes updated scenes of sexual abuse, gun and knife crime. Powerful first love remains pristine.
The story takes place at The Verona Institute, a regimented lock-up for young people who have either committed crimes or are mentally unfit. It’s a not too distant future. Inmates wear loose white cotton clothing and sneakers. Girls and boys are separately housed, coming together- closely observed- on rare occasions. (The opening photo is a dance.) During what seems to be regimented exercise, one girl is singled out by Tybalt, an imposing guard.
When she manages to get away, he conscripts Juliet who, resisting, is force-marched out a door, down corridors and eventually into a dark room…to be raped. We get a glimpse of the guard wearing a wife beater tee shirt, now all in black. The first girl tries fruitlessly to find her successor.
A doctor, a nurse and orderlies dole out meds in small paper cups. Life seems to go on. Chairs are proffered. School? Romeo is brought in by his distracted parents, signed for and abandoned. Several boys go at him. He’s stripped and dressed in whites. There’s a dance- the only time inhabitants wear street clothes- the boys seemingly from a costume trunk, the girls in 50s dresses. A disco ball creates bubbles. Every couple interprets the music differently.
Romeo is brought in. Like West Side Story, he and Juliet see each other across the room and are drawn. They circle one another with wonder and dance. There’s a male gay couple- who are separated. One of them is Mercutio.
Little choreography looks like classical ballet, though it’s interwoven and abets. Bourne’s dancers are fluid and light, here playful. They drape and fold over one another. A chaplain oversees. (There’s only one African American boy, only one African American girl.) Someone shuts off the light. Movement becomes provocative. Boys take off their shirts. Lights go on. Guards pull couples apart.
That night Romeo and Juliet sneak out of their rooms. Almost caught by a guard, they’re protected by the Chaplain. A romantic pas de deux follows. One marvelous kiss extends from position to position as both move, twist, roll, climb and hold. Tybalt appears. He and the Chaplain have an altercation. The couple is separated. Tybalt seems in physical pain, on his knees, holding his head.
“Two Weeks Later.” Beds are rolled in. Everyone has insomnia. Romeo and Juliet dream of one another from their quarters. The kids blindfold and bring them together. Tybalt is drunk. He pulls them apart. Circled, he cries and crawls to Juliet. She’s appalled. Peers laugh. He has a gun. Tybalt grabs Mercutio as a shield, dragging him away from the hostile crowd up stairs to the balcony. He dangles the boy, drops him. There’s a tussle. Romeo grabs the gun. The three move offstage. We hear a shot. Mercutio gets hit in the stomach…and dies. His lover mourns.
The kids become fearless. With Romeo in the lead, they dramatically kill Tybalt. Everyone runs off. Disraught and disoriented, he’s caught. Residents are collectively drugged, spacey. Romeo is put into a straight jacket. His parents arrive. He resists leaving. His parents don’t want him. They write a big check (neatly dramatized.) With no information as to what’s happened to Romeo, Juliet has hidden a knife under her mattress. Helped out of their rooms by peers, they meet and make love, but Juliet is pursued by the ghost of Tybalt and panics… Tragic resolution is not as direct as that of Shakespeare.
Fresh and captivating – with impact. Facial expressions add immeasurably.
Photos by Johan Perssoni
Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet
A New Adventures Production
Filmed at Sadler’s Wells August 2019
Directed and Choreographed by Matthew Bourne
Directed for the Screen by Ross MacGibbon
Music Sergei Prokofiev
Romeo- Paris Fitzpatrick, Juliet-Cordelia Braithwaite, Tybalt- Dan Wright, Mercutio- Ben Brown