Matthew Bourne’s Romeo & Juliet: A Modern Masterpiece

Romeo & Juliet is a tale as old as time. Recounted again and again – even the original is a reinvention of a reinvention of an older story – I know some people feel it’s been done to death. Personally, I love it. The story is so given to reinterpretation and every retelling brings something new. Some work better than others. Some fall completely flat. Some are heralded as triumphs and find their own place in history – think West Side Story or Baz Luhrmann’s urban reworking.

Matthew Bourne is renowned for his bold reimaginings of classic works and his Romeo & Juliet is no exception.

Set in a kind of dystopian institution- the exact nature of which is not quite clear – the overarching theme of conflict is explored in a new and visceral way. With external forces of division and violence still in play, Bourne’s retelling portrays internal conflict with equal poignancy. From the opening motifs, which are almost regimented, that discord is communicated through staccato movements that are contemporary in style whilst utilising the bodily linguistics of classical ballet to convey key feelings of entrapment and chaos.

  • Rather than the traditional division between families as a result of an ancient feud, the division here is between the young men and women being held – clearly against their will – in the Verona Institue. Why they are there is never firmly established but the clinical appearance of the set, institutional white uniforms and, as the first act progresses, choreographed administration of medication evoke the feel of an old world asylum. When Romeo first appears it is as his well-to-do parents deposit him, unfeelingly, at the institute. This is the only clear familial element in the whole production which some might think would leave little of the story – after all, what is Romeo & Juliet without their famous feuding families keeping them apart? But, on the contrary, removing the families serves to draw out the essence of the story: enforced division, the tragedy of youth and ill-fated love.
  • The entire production is utterly stunning from beginning to end but the thing that made my breath catch in my throat and the hairs on my neck raise was the pas de deux. In stark contrast to the jarring movements that dominate amongst the corps, the intimacy and fluidity of the pas de deux is absolutely exquisite. Communicating profound longing and beautifully illustrating stolen moments of togetherness, the chemistry between Cordelia Braithwaite’s Juliet and Paris Fitzpatrick – both of whom delivered outstanding performances – is enhanced by Bourne’s masterful choreography. Distinctly contemporary but with clear nods to the various classical interpretations of those intimate moments, the star-crosses lovers move like magnets, constantly pulling, repelling and orbiting on another in a symphony of close contact and clever use of space. A shining example of the power of dance to convey raw emotion.

    The choreography is given space to breathe and speak for itself against Lez Brotherston’s minimal yet imposing set, which effortlessly creates an atmosphere of institutional intimidation from the moment the curtain lifts. The costumes are graceful in their simplicity and serve to enhance the movement of the dancers.

    It’s impossible, of course, to talk about the production without mentioning the accompaniment. Prokofiev’s score is absolutely iconic and Terry Davies’ pared down orchestration – recreated for a small chamber orchestra of 15 – is a triumphant rendering, respectful of the original yet embracing and perfectly complementing the aesthetic of the movement on stage. Simple, at times almost delicate, yet retaining the full power and drama of Prokofiev’s sound.

    The entire New Adventures cast and the Salford young cast executed the entire performance with finesse, bringing all the vitality of youth – so central to the New Adventures vision – to the stage.

    Matthew Bourne’s Romeo & Juliet is a modern masterpiece, one that is sure to become a classic in its own right, and Bourne has once again proven that he and his team are the best in the business.

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