Every generation has its Romeo and Juliet. Franco Zeffirelli and Baz Luhrmann on film, Rudolf Nureyev and Kenneth MacMillan in ballet. Now Matthew Bourne has turned his choreographic talents to the eternal tragedy of the lovestruck teens.
Prokofiev’s immortal score is still very much in evidence, though old Sergei is probably revolving in his grave at the liberties taken by Bourne and orchestrator Terry Davies. If there were any doubts that this is a Romeo and Juliet for the millennial generation, the fact that there are no fewer than four different casts of increasing youth should lay them to rest.
The setting is the Verona Institute, a white-tiled asylum where the parents of mixed-up kids send them for a ‘cure’. This is the kind of place where nursing staff are outnumbered by brutal guards. These are led by the hulking Tybalt, a shaven-headed thug who terrorises Juliet and drags her off to empty rooms for special treatment, implying, though not graphically, sexual abuse.
The arrival of Romeo – a nerdy, twitchy boy in the grip of OCD, ADHD and other acronyms besides – alerts Benvolio, Mercutio and his boyfriend Balthasar, who initiate Romeo into the community of white-clad inmates. The female chaplain Reverend Laurence encourages the incendiary love between the damaged Juliet and the gauche Romeo and helps it on its way to inevitable tragedy.
Radical it may be, but Bourne’s storytelling gifts are in full flower here. In spite of the remodelling, the excisions and the hermetically sealed universe, the narrative is as clear as day. In less creative hands this might have been a box-ticking exercise in hot-button issues – mental health, sexual abuse, parental apathy – but Bourne’s commitment and creativity bring genuine weight to the piece.
The stage is electrified by youthful energy as the inmates roar and bounce across Lez Brotherston’s terrific set in symmetrical ensembles depicting institutional regimentation. The movement is supercharged and flowing, with Prokofiev’s score given extra acceleration by Brett Morris in the orchestra pit. Bourne nails it time after time with scenes like the institute’s disco, organised by Reverend Laurence, which starts sedately, then descends into a snog-and-grope fest when she leaves the room and the lights dim.
The clever dorm scene in which there are sudden gender switches from boys to girls and back again, and the long, first kiss between Romeo and Juliet as they traverse the stage and roll across the floor with their lips locked together, make for thrilling physical theatre. Shakespeare understood the sheer, blind, hurtling momentum of first love and Bourne illustrates it perfectly.
A showstopper of a different kind occurred after 20 minutes, when Bourne himself took the stage to say that Reece Causton had been injured and that a substitute Mercutio was en route to the theatre. In less than 15 minutes it restarted and continued as if nothing untoward had happened. Best wishes to Causton for a speedy recovery and congratulations to the company for the same thing.