Robert Tanitch reviews Matthew Bourne’s Romeo + Juliet at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London.

Robert Tanitch reviews Matthew Bourne’s Romeo + Juliet at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London.

Matthew Bourne, master dance theatre showman, has been successfully reinventing the major classical ballets over the last thirty years. His version of Romeo and Juliet, which premiered in 2019, is a far cry from the great, tragic love story we all know. He is not staging the play Shakespeare wrote. There are no Montagues, no Capulets. But he is using Prokofiev’s score as his script.

The music, as always, is the driving force. The re-orchestration by Terry Davies distorts the lush sounds and makes them edgier. The well-known Dance of the Knights sequence, dark, imposing, ominous, homophonic in texture, is used to up the drama time and time again.

The first recorded ballet was in 1785 and there have been numerous dance versions since. The story is timeless and can be set in any era and in any place. Bourne sets his version in The Verona Institute, a psychiatric hospital for young people in the not-too-distant future where they are disciplined and martialed, and subject to physical and sexual abuse.

Lez Brotherston’s set, with its clinical white tiles, wire fences, locked gates, metal staircases and catwalk, suggests a reformatory. A school bell clangs regularly. All the inmates, male and female, are dressed in white and gender fluid. They look as if they have mental health problems.

The action is urgent, erotic, raw and finally bloody. The choreography is aggressive and disturbing. The ensemble energy is relentless. The excitement is visceral. The most striking transformation is turning Tybalt into a prison guard, a big, nasty, brutal bully who rapes Juliet. He dies a nasty death, strangled by the inmates. Friar Lawrence is turned into a weak female prison chaplain.

Paris Fitzpatrick’s Romeo is a vulnerable and awkward innocent who has been dumped in the asylum by his unloving politically ambitious parents. Cordelia Braithwaite’s disturbed redheaded Juliet is more mature. There’s no balcony scene but there is sex. One extended duet has the star-cross’d lovers tumbling and rolling about on the floor, on and over each other, kissing and kissing.

Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet will be visiting 13 UK theatres this year, ahead of a major international tour in 2024. Don’t miss it.

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