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Teenage Angst and Institutions

Watching Matthew Bourne's reworked version of the “star-cross'd lovers,” I was briefly reminded of Veronica, played by Winona Ryder, in the dark 1988 comedy by Daniel Waters and Michael Lehmann, Heathers, and her line, “my teen angst bullshit has a body count.” Yes, this is the darker side of Bourne's repertoire, and it pulls no punches.

Performance

Matthew Bourne's “Romeo and Juliet”

Place

The King's Theatre, Glasgow, UK, September 27, 2023

Words

Lorna Irvine

Rory Macleod and Monique Jonas in Matthew Bourne's “Romeo and Juliet.” Photograph by Johan Persson

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Eschewing the rivalry between the Montagues and Capulets, though, we're plummeted into Verona Institute, a kind of borstal-cum- psychiatric ward for troubled teenagers. It's a jarring narrative decision at first. Without these family battles, we instead bear witness to a war between kids and authority figures. Only the vicar, Rev Bernadette Laurence (in place of Juliet's nurse) portrayed by Daisy May Kemp with equal parts grace, humour and brio, has any sympathetic traits. She bumbles along somewhat hopelessly, but elicits pathos as well as laughter.

Paris Fitzpatrick as Romeo and Company in Matthew Bourne's “Romeo and Juliet.” Photograph by Johan Persson

Lez Brotherston's set is impressively claustrophobic, like a Clockwork Orange inspired institution, all stark steel and clinical white slabs. The only concession to Catholic iconography is a stained glass structure, which, in true cheeky Bourne style, slides down at one stage, revealing a glitter ball. Madonna would be proud.

As for the choreography,  it's a slow burning parade of throbbing hormones—the kids' heads twitch as they march with a resigned kind of militaristic ennui, before backs arch coquettishly, and they claw at their faces and groins—as hazing rituals, mental health problems, nasty homophobia, and awkward exchanges emerge from their once-sleepy safety. It's an astute metaphor for the imprisonment of youth: those heightened feelings, of burgeoning desires, body shame, and peer pressure. 

Alan Vincent as Senator Montague, Cordelia Braithwaite as Mrs. Montague & Rory Macleod as Romeo in Matthew Bourne's “Romeo and Juliet.” Photograph by Johan Persson

Extremely telling, too, is the stiff as cardboard scene where the adolescents are forced into fifties styled finery—it's a clockwork doll style dance, with saucer eyes, surely a cringe—inducing reminder of who we all once were. It is in its own way a military march to adulthood—a degrading part of the school system which imposed uneasy partnerships on kids who had only recently graduated from cuddling teddy bears.

Terry Davies' orchestration focuses on some of Prokofiev's lush score, and the doomy ensemble work lends itself well to the repeated string motifs of “Dance of the Knights,” always a majestic and foreboding piece.

Romeo and Juliet themselves (the glorious, passionate pairing of Rory Macleod and Monique Jonas, both vulnerable, yet resilient) seem to melt into each other during their brief, but sensual interludes together. Juliet falls into the arms of Romeo for lusty duets where they curl around each other like sleeping kittens. The feeling of being inseparable soul mates, never to be torn apart, is reinforced by their occasional positioning together at the head, like conjoined twins. As for the famous balcony scene—it takes place when Romeo shimmies up a ladder, gazing down at the paramour who seems, initially, out of reach. Mirroring puts the focus squarely onto their innate compatibility, as they sleep on either side of the room. They seem as two halves, waiting to form a whole unit.

Richard Winsor as Tybalt in Matthew Bourne's “Romeo and Juliet.” Photograph by Johan Persson

But there's a villainous adult always lurking, watching, in the shape of a wonderfully menacing  Danny Reubens, who provides the almost “boo hiss” foil as Tybalt, a prowling sleaze, supposedly a trustworthy grown-up warden in charge of the dorms, who instead abuses his position of power, pawing at the girls and forcing boys to kiss, with a gun ever present. Even when hanged by his own belt, he re-emerges as a nightmare vision, symbolic of past misdemeanours, without ever losing his impact. With his dangerous rock star posturing, he's like a cockroach who can't be squashed. As allegations of highly toxic masculinity are very much an unwelcome presence in the news headlines lately, this bloody yet tender take on the Bard feels charged, quietly devastating in its own way, and timely indeed.

Lorna Irvine


Based in Glasgow, Lorna was delightfully corrupted by the work of Michael Clark in her early teens, and has never looked back. Passionate about dance, music, and theatre she writes regularly for the List, Across the Arts and Exeunt. She also wrote on dance, drama and whatever particular obsession she had that week for the Shimmy, the Skinny and TLG and has contributed to Mslexia, TYCI and the Vile Blog.

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