October 23, 2019, by Peter Kirwan
Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet (New Adventures) @ Sadler’s Wells/Nottingham Broadway
Illuminations’ new film of Matthew Bourne’s reimagining of Romeo and Juliet is a thrilling addition to the canon of dance adaptations of the play. Taking the classic Sergei Prokofiev score, but setting the ballet in a near-future ‘Verona Institute’ for the incarceration of young people, Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet is a raw and moving piece that fascinatingly adjusts the agency of the young people of the play and offers a stark set of warnings about institutional violence and abuse.
Act One introduces the Institute, with bars on three sides and a balcony level above doors separating the off-stage area into ‘girls’ and ‘boys’. The ensemble move in groups, docile but jerking periodically. Guards – including Dan Wright’s enormous Tybalt – ensure that the young people’s behaviour remains within strict parameters, while orderlies (Daisy May Kemp and Matt Perry) drug them as if on an assembly line. Among the young people, Juliet (Cordelia Braithwaite) emerges, distinguished by her striking shock of red hair. She is a target for Tybalt, who continually pursues her. Their dances are horrible to watch, with Tybalt taking Juliet by the head and pulling her back and forth while she tries to get away. Tybalt’s sheer size and forcefulness lead to Juliet continually being separated from the group and, presumably, assaulted offstage. The turning of Tybalt into an out-and-out villain is effective here, his frustration and anger here being given full vent in the unchallenged power of a guard.
Meanwhile, Romeo (Paris Fitzpatrick) is turned in to the Institute by his parents, Senator and Mrs Montague (Perry and Kemp again). The Montagues wave at unseen crowds and press photographers, and are clearly institutionalising their son in order to get him away from the headlines. Fitzpatrick is hilarious, dressed in full blazer and tie but unable to settle or move conventionally; every time the Montagues look away, he ends up dangling from a railing or lying across the floor. In a lovely sequence, he is handed over to a bunch of other boys, who undress him and then re-dress him in the Institute whites while his parents return to public life.
The fascinating effect of Bourne’s reimagining is to remove the Capulet/Montague antipathy and place Romeo and Juliet on the same side of a system of institutional oppression. While there are jokey divisions between the boys and the girls, the inmates are all fundamentally in it together, putting up with a system that patronises and disciplines them. The patronising comes from Reverend Laurence (Kemp), who we first see organising a dance for the inmates. Bespectacled and fumbling, Rev Laurence is teased mercilessly by the boys, especially by Mercutio (Ben Brown) and his boyfriend Balthasar (Jackson Fisch), as she sets up a ‘ball’ with mirrorball and Casio keyboard. The boys and girls are brought out in separate groups wearing ridiculous costumes, and are forced to pair up and dance, moving like music box dolls in carefully ordered fashion. Tybalt tears Mercutio and Balthasar apart when they kiss, and Romeo and Juliet meet and begin dancing together, applauded by the others. It is only when the authorities leave, though, that the inmates tear off the constraining clothes and begin coupling up for real, while Romeo and Juliet remain clothed and stare at one another, leaning in for a kiss.
Two weeks later, Romeo and Juliet are going strong. In a lovely tribute to ‘Summer Lovin”, the boys and girls separate into groups and tease the two about their love for one another, before blindfolding them and bringing them to a kind of prison wedding, where the rest hold lights while Romeo and Juliet hold hands. But they are interrupted by Tybalt, who staggers in with a mostly drunk bottle and is aghast to see Juliet with Romeo. Drunkenly, he falls to her feet and sobs, and Mercutio mimics the action, causing everyone to laugh at Tybalt. Tybalt smiles in return and pulls out a gun, holding it to Mercutio’s head while Balthasar sobs. This is one of the show’s most dangerous moments, as Tybalt forces Mercutio around the set and dangles him from the balcony. Romeo takes charge, getting the inmates to hide, and then grabbing Tybalt’s gun, but the gun goes off and shoots Mercutio in the gut, he dying in the arms of his lover. Juliet and Romeo then attack Tybalt with the help of the rest of the inmates, eventually getting a belt around his neck. Romeo and Juliet pull hard on the ends while the rest of the ensemble gather behind and pull in unison, until Tybalt falls dead. But as the alarms go off, Romeo is left alone, holding the murder weapon.
The especially effective choice here is to give Romeo and Juliet shared agency. In their meeting and private dances, Romeo and Juliet move as one in the most classical style of the whole show. Here, they again work in concert with one another, but are here complementary rather than unified, taking turns to pummel Tybalt and then pulling together to kill him. That the whole of the Institute works together to overcome their oppressor is similarly important, but ultimately leads to nothing as Romeo is forced to carry the can for everything.
In the final act, the two are separated. Juliet has stolen a knife and keeps it with her, trying to build up the courage to use it, while Romeo is released to his parents. Romeo acts mad in order to stay within the Institute, and after the Montagues give the warden a substantial cheque (adding a couple of zeroes to it when she seems reluctant), he is returned to the prison. Rev Laurence leads Juliet to Romeo at night, and the two dance together again, finally falling into bed. But then Juliet is awoken at night, and lights start approaching – and suddenly, Tybalt appears. Romeo can’t see him, but Juliet is terrified, and Tybalt chases her across the Institute, back to her own room where she retrieves her knife and goes to attack the spectre – only to find that she has plunged it into Romeo. Their final dance is heartbreaking, as they try to reprise their earlier movements but a failing Romeo keeps stumbling and falling into her arms. As Juliet wraps Romeo’s body around herself, she howls, before taking the knife and killing herself, the show ending with the inmates placing their bodies together on a slab.
Wisely dialling down the complexity of the plot, Bourne’s decision to have Juliet kill Romeo, out of guilt over her own self-defence and damaged by her abuse, places blame squarely on a society that incarcerates and exploits young people. The attempt to drug them out of their true feelings, the imposition of rigid structures of control, and the disempowerment of victims, all create a destructive environment in which love and sanity cannot survive. It’s stunningly danced and beautifully designed, and Ross MacGibbon’s screen direction alternates beautifully between close-ups that privilege the emotion of the main participants, and full-stage angles that constantly emphasise the bars and the collective impact of societal abuse on this group. It’s an aching show, and a timely update.