'Matthew Bourne's Romeo & Juliet' review — a hauntingly modern and unconventional reimagining

Read our four-star review of Matthew Bourne's Romeo & Juliet, a dance adaptation of Shakespeare's play in performances at Sadler's Wells to 2 September.

Julia Rank
Julia Rank

Is it really Romeo & Juliet without the warring families, gang warfare, and fatal misunderstandings? Well, this is Matthew Bourne’s Romeo & Juliet, not Shakespeare’s.

The irreverent star choreographer resisted adapting the star-crossed lovers’ story for many years, and this revival of his 2019 interpretation showcases a visceral and streamlined piece of dance psychodrama. The central conflict of passionate young people longing for freedom versus tyrannical adult authority (shades of Matilda with older kids) could be its own cliché and not all the storytelling works, but Bourne makes the central love story feel fresh and urgent, propelled by Terry Davies’s edgy rendering of Prokofiev’s classic ballet score. From the opening image of two bloodied bodies on a mortuary slab, this certainly isn’t going to be a beautiful death.

Bourne sets the action in the sinister Verona Institute "in the not-too distant future," which contains elements of a reform school, psychiatric unit, and prison, where it’s clear group therapy isn’t helping anyone. It’s vague as to what the inmates have done to be admitted – it would seem they simply don’t fit into conventional society. Senator Montague and his ice queen wife regard the twitchy Romeo as a nuisance and dump him accordingly.

Lez Brotherston’s set design is an icebox of sterile white tiles and iron staircases with chilly lighting by Paule Constable. The inmates in their white uniforms perform regimented drill exercises to the Dance of the Knights" – there’s no room for individuality while the adults are watching.

It’s no wonder the inmates are desperate to experience love and warmth in such an environment. Juliet is repeatedly assaulted offstage by thuggish guard Tybalt (Danny Reubens), and she’s probably not the only one. The Nurse and Friar Laurence are amalgamated in the form of institute chaplain Reverend Bernadette Laurence (Daisy May Kemp), a motherly presence in a droopy cardigan – it requires some suspension of disbelief that she would work at such a place.

Colour appears when the youngsters are allowed to wear their own 1950s-style clothes at a dance night (Juliet wears a simple white dress like Maria in West Side Story). With the adults removed, polite foxtrotting turns into something more physical and experimental, while Romeo and Juliet steal their first kisses and find they can’t stop. The balcony pas de deux is full of hesitancy that blossoms into full passion, like flowers that bloom through cracks in a wall. Just as touching is the way in which their union is blessed by their peers in the dormitory, a win for the team in which everyone can partake. Additionally, Mercutio (Ben Brown) and Balthasar (Jackson Fisch) have their own love story, and Fisch’s second-act dance of grief is an emotional highlight.

The whole company vividly dances and acts Romeo & Juliet. Paris Fitzpatrick’s baby-faced and gangly Romeo has been forced into a preppy mould by his parents and discovers a more authentic self in his connection with Juliet. The flame-haired Cordelia Braithwaite’s Juliet is a brave and vivacious heroine; her trauma and hallucinations lead up to the tragic climax, but this doesn't eclipse the resilience and defiance she demonstrates in life.

Matthew Bourne's Romeo & Juliet is at Sadler's Wells through 2 September. Book Matthew Bourne's Romeo & Juliet on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: The cast of Matthew Bourne's Romeo & Juliet. (Photo courtesy of production)

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