Saturday, October 5, 2019

Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet

 September 2019

Whilst it merely hints at Shakespeare's play (no star-crossed lovers, feuding families, forced marriage), Matthew Bourne's Romeo and Juliet is astonishing and compelling. His usual, masterful storytelling is at its very best here, climaxing in unexpected ways and prompting such acute emotions that tears coursed down my face at the end.

Set in the Verona Institute, a building where young offenders and the mentally ill are confined, the action gets under way at a pace with Sergei Prokofiev's "Dance of the Knights", part of a re-orchestrated and re-arranged score by Terry Davies for just 15 multi-skilled musicians. Initially sceptical about how this might work, the strength of the sound emanating from the pit was as surprising as the drama on stage, and any doubts were quickly dispelled.

Lez Brotherston's clinical, two-tier, shiny white sets frame the action brilliantly and enable the ever-present tension to smoulder throughout. Superb lighting design by Paule Constable captures the volatility of each scene with subtlety.

Juliet (Cordelia Braithwaite) is already an "inmate" alongside Mercutio, Balthasar, Mercutio's boyfriend Gackson Fisch), and Benvolio (Harrison Dowzell). Romeo (Paris Fitzpatrick) is dumped unceremoniously there by his politician parents who clearly view him as a problem. The youths are guarded by Tybalt (Dan Wright), a brute of a man who appears as troubled as his charges. In an unfortunate accident on press night, Reece Causton, who had been originally cast as Mercutio, injured himself in the early stages of the performance. Bourne took to the stage to report that his replacement would be there after a short pause, and sure enough, Ben Brown leapt to the challenge and the show went on seamlessly.

From the outset, the atmosphere is intoxicating. The action is intense and concise, with Bourne's straightforward vocabulary emphasising the powerful score with rhythmic marching and stark shapes. As the inmates' medication is robotically distributed, Juliet is singled out by Tybalt and, we are led to believe, raped by him off stage. There is little time to digest this properly before the Rev Bernadette Laurence (Daisy May Kemp) has organised the institution disco. This creates the opportunity for Romeo and Juliet to meet and fall in love. What is famously the "balcony"pas de deux, here is an emotionally fulfilling duet that simmers with young love. The couple fall over each other with eagerness and sweeping, graceful movements, delivering the world's longest kiss, whilst rippling over each other's bodies and negotiating the set with feverish ardour.

There's plenty of humour too, but it all starts to go badly wrong when Tybalt, fuelled by alcohol, finds that Juliet has fallen for Romeo. In an uncharacteristic show of weakness, he falls to his knees, only to be openly mocked by the inmates. Tybal's anger is unleashed in a terrifying tour de force from Wright, his blistering fury towering above the cast. The ensuing murders are brutally shocking. Romeo is left to take the blame. It seemed as if he was about to be sent home for bad behaviour, but his ensuing manic episode ensures he remains. There's a nod to Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo, when Juliet sits on her bed in stillness contemplating her next move, then begging the compassionate Rev Bernadette to engineer a meeting between the two young lovers.

What follows is some of the best theatre I have seen in years. Juliet is triggered by the memory of her trauma with Tybalt and "sees" him chasing her around the building. I will not reveal the heartbreaking ending here, but, of course Romeo and Juliet die, as we know they will. Take heed, though, the impact lasts long after curtain down.

The cast is young, making the story appear ferociously real. Bourne selected six young cast dancers including Arianne Morgan, Bethany Hunt and Isabelle Evans, as Juliet’s ‘friends’, whilst Jago Mottart, Dillon Berry and Samuel Dilkes, support Romeo.  Profoundly moving, this production cannot fail to touch the senses and, after all, isn't that why we go to the theatre, to be completely transported? Bourne, his team and his committed company have yet another success on their hands.