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Matthew Bourne Romeo and Juliet
Seren Williams and Andrew Monaghan in Matthew Bourne's “Romeo and Juliet.” Photograph by Johan Persson

Youth in Revolt

Matthew Bourne's “Romeo & Juliet”

Performance
Matthew Bourne's New Adventures: “Romeo and Juliet”
Place
Sadler’s Wells, London, UK, August 2019
Words
Sara Veale

Like Baz Luhrmann before him, Matthew Bourne’s contemporary reworking of “Romeo and Juliet” adds a coat of grit to fair Verona. Gone are the marbled columns and wrought-iron balconies of the Capulet court; it’s all sheetrock and cold metal bars at the Verona Institute, a juvie-asylum hybrid where disaffected teens are doped into submission. Absent too are the feuding families. Romeo’s parents are shellacked politicians, eager to hand their son over for medicated safekeeping, while Juliet’s are absent from the picture altogether. A legion of tyrannical guards stand in the way of our star-crossed lovers, commanded by a nightmarish Tybalt whose predation of Juliet escalates into rape just minutes into the show.

So it’s not dynastic tribalism but abject revolt that drives Bourne’s plot. The set-up creates an energising locus of terror for the production, though not without compromising some of its characterisations. Romeo is a new arrival to Verona, and his relationships with Mercutio and Benvolio are fresh, incidental to the us-versus-them dynamic. Without a deeper-seated legacy at stake, their alliance feels flimsy. The climax, on the other hand, which brings death at the hands of Juliet’s psychotic break, is richly conceived—a stark, unsettling development that considers misogyny, oppression and mental health at once.

Matthew Bourne Romeo and Juliet
Seren Williams and Andrew Monaghan in Matthew Bourne’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Photograph by Johan Persson

Bourne has supplemented company members from his touring troupe, New Adventures, with a slew of fresh faces hired during a national search, splitting his dancers over two casts (the Montague Company and Capulet Company). The ensemble is young, bristling with verve as they attend to swells of core-driven choreography, from hunched, browbeaten marching to twirling lifts in shadow. If the introduction is sluggish, the buzzing set pieces that follow—including a raucous school dance—show Bourne’s inspired eye for staging. The kids play while the adults are away, lunging into splits and clenching each other with teenage giddiness.

From here we’re treated to our balcony scene, a swooning after-hours tangle in the dim hallways of Verona Institute. Seren Williams and Andrew Monaghan—spearheading the Montague Company—make a sweet pair, dizzy with the fever of first love. What starts out as passable chemistry evolves into doe-eyed desire as they melt their way through a spree of luxurious embraces. The duet’s central attraction is a lingering kiss—one that rollicks across Lez Brotherston’s half-moon set, surviving several precarious level changes.

Matthew Bourne Romeo and Juliet
Seren Williams and Andrew Monaghan in Matthew Bourne’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Photograph by Johan Persson

Monaghan’s Romeo, a timid figure to begin with, comes into his own as the odds stack against the pair; by the tragic finale he’s thumping his fists and surging with speed. There’s a more consistent vitality to Williams’s Juliet, spirited from her first sprint to her last gasping breath. They’re aided by some vibrant supporting performances, including Ben Brown’s sprightly, balletic Mercutio, though much of the storytelling is given over to large-picture scene-setting rather than action, especially in the first act, where plot is weighed down by a few dead-end side shows.

The second half redresses some of this bloat with crisper, tighter bursts of character-driven dance. There’s the tension of Juliet’s trembling standoff with Tybalt (Danny Reubens), and the urgency of the ensemble moving in on him in after Mercutio’s death. There’s also more force to Prokofiev’s brass-heavy score, remixed here with plucky strings and sharp, edgy sound effects.

With its high-stakes romance and eager cast, Bourne’s reinvention twists the lifeblood of Shakespeare’s tragedy into an intriguing show of power dynamics. It’s a top-heavy effort, yes, but its insightful moments outnumber the unwieldy ones, drawing on the acute, searing vulnerability of adolescence.