Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Sarah Crompton

Matthew Bourne’s Romeo + Juliet review – more compelling than ever

Paris Fitzpatrick and Cordelia Braithwaite as Romeo and Juliet, little by torchlight, being showered by confetti by a group of people around them, everyone dressed in white vests, in an asylum setting
‘At once ecstatic and chaste’: Paris Fitzpatrick and Cordelia Braithwaite, centre, as Romeo and Juliet. Photograph by Johan Persson Photograph: Johan Persson

The choreographer Matthew Bourne tends to be seen as a family favourite – someone who makes works that everyone can enjoy. That’s true, but what gets missed in that judgment is just how good he is at putting passion – suppressed and expressed – on stage.

His Romeo + Juliet, returning four years after its premiere, is a case in point. Set in the Verona Institute, some kind of asylum-cum-borstal designed to incarcerate problem youths, it’s designed by Lez Brotherston as a white world of smooth surfaces, barred doors and staircases that lead nowhere. Yet within this setting, the white-clad characters strive all the time to break from the uniformity imposed on them, introducing a jerk of the head, a twitch of the arms, into their mechanical marches, stretching their limbs into embraces that are forbidden, snatching a kiss under the fierce eye of the guards.

When Romeo meets Juliet at a ball organised by ineffectual do-gooder Rev Bernadette Laurence, they circle each other, entranced, under a glitter ball. But around them, their fellows bend deep into the ground, their bodies catching the weight and beat of Prokofiev’s score as they meld together in forbidden passion.

By the balcony scene, brilliantly conceived to make use of the ladders and the upper walkway of the set, with the lovers dodging the warders’ searchlights, Romeo and Juliet have found a way to express their feelings that is at once ecstatic and chaste. It begins as Romeo nuzzles his head into Juliet’s neck, moulding his body to her shape, fluidly following her round and round the stage. They are equals in love, lifting one another, tumbling with incredible lightness over each other’s backs, and finally locking lips in a kiss that doesn’t break even though they roll across the floor and climb the stairs.

The message of this radical take on Shakespeare’s tale is quite clear: love and sex are powerful – threatening to a society that wants people to conform. The brutal Tybalt (danced with tormented nuance by Richard Winsor) precipitates the tragedy not just because he is obsessed with Juliet but because he is full of homophobic hatred for Ben Brown’s swaggering, brave Mercutio.

Since the piece first appeared in 2019, Bourne has worked – as he always does – on refining and adding clarity. The ending is still shocking, but now more directly seems to spring from Juliet’s trauma. Returning to the role she created, Cordelia Braithwaite finds new strains of suffering; her Juliet is tragic precisely because her strength and courage have been distorted by the life imposed upon her. Paris Fitzpatrick’s goofy, charming Romeo is the perfect foil.

But the entire cast shines. There’s a delicate solo of traumatised mourning for Jackson Fisch’s Balthasar set to the section of music that often announces the arrival of Juliet’s bridesmaids, and fluent, clever dances for the other characters that capture both their initial capacity for joy and resistance and the drugged, shell-shocked state to which they are finally reduced.

Fabulously responsive to the melancholy that underpins Prokofiev’s score, which is brilliantly adapted by Terry Davies and played live under the conductor Daniel Parkinson by the New Adventures orchestra, this is a bleak adaptation of a dark play. Absolutely compelling.

Watch a trailer for Matthew Bourne’s Romeo + Juliet.
Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Already a member? Sign in here
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.