Review Romeo and Juliet
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Review: Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet
By Beccy Conway
Set in the ambiguously-named Verona Institute, Sir Matthew Bourne’s latest masterpiece with his world-renowned company, New Adventures, leaves the audience to determine why a group of young people are incarcerated in a near-future detention centre. Bright white tiles and railings are encircled by towering cage walls, made even more menacing by an echoing clanging from somewhere distant and unseen.
Whether living in a mental health facility, militarian boarding school, or Borstal–style young offenders’ institution, its instantly apparent that the young people – all dressed in utilitarian white clothing – are subjected to a violent, authoritarian regime.
This stark setting could be seen as a manifestation of the tension between Shakespeare’s rival Capulets and Montagues, the premise of warring families replaced in favour of scenes of subjugation and abuse by the guards, and attempts by the young people to break free of their oppression.
But, some of the production’s most joyful moments stem from this oppression. The cast is made up predominantly of young company members and third-year trainee dancers, many of whom have made their New Adventures debuts during this UK tour.
Perhaps this accounts for the cast’s skill in portraying the playfulness and individuality of their characters’ personalities; lustful teenagers defying the rules, tricking their chaperones into abandoning their posts, and discovering romance. Special mention goes to Ben Brown, Asher Rosenheim and João Carolino, who play Mercutio,Balthasar and Benvolio, their performances delightfully cheeky.
It’s great to see seasoned New Adventures member Danny Reubens return to The Mayflower, having previously enjoyed his performances in Sleeping Beauty and the record-smashing The Red Shoes, which excitingly, New Adventures has announced it will revive this autumn.
Uniquely for this New Adventures production, the company has split in two. Not only thematically fitting for Romeo and Juliet, but also practical, it allowed for the admirable decision to incorporate local dancers into the performances in every city of the tour. One week the Capulet company perform the piece, whilst in the next city of the tour the Montague company train with the six young dancers selected to perform in their region the following week.
I was invited to sit in on rehearsals with the Montagues last week, and to speak with several of the permanent cast and their younger counterparts. I asked young cast members Dillon Berry and Samuel Dilkes how they’ve found their experiences working with New Adventures. One word: intense!
The search for dancers to form each city’s young cast began over a year ago, culminating in a series of intensive workshop days when the final six dancers for each region were chosen. Berry and Dilkes informed me that the piece had evolved since these initial workshops, and they had spent part of the week relearning much of the choreography, not that I would have known this from their performances – the young cast integrated into the company with professionalism and finesse.
It hasn’t only been a fulfilling experience for the young dancers, as lead performers Andrew Monaghan (Romeo) and Meren Williams (Juliet) explained. Schedules for professional dance companies can be relentless, with most tours involving six to eight performances per week in a single city, before moving on to another theatre across the country and beginning the cycle again.
Romeo and Juliet are understandably draining characters to perform, and so, by alternating performance weeks with the Capulet company, whilst they spend time rehearsing with each new group of young dancers, Williams and Monaghan told me they’ve enjoyed the emotional break this allowed them, as well as keeping them rooted in the underlying choreography.
It’s understandable that the cast might appreciate breaks from their characters, because there are some fairly difficult themes explored, including questions of consent and control. During the rehearsal, Alan Vincent, Resident Director described the piece to me as physically ‘dangerous’, and having seen the show, I’m left to wonder if he was also referring to danger psychologically.
Trauma is prevalent throughout the piece, particularly so as we enter the second act. The cast gradually reappear on stage towards the end of the interval, presenting symptoms of PTSD. They create an alarming tableau as the young people wander the space with vacant stares, performing staccato gestures like grabbing their faces, their fingers splayed, and shuddering or rocking back and forth.
Not only does Romeo and Juliet include young dancers, but a series of young associates were involved throughout the creative process, benefitting from mentoring by some of Bourne’s trusted long-time colleagues including Lez Brotherston, Paule Constable and Paul Groothuis, who returned to New Adventures to work on all aspects of the design for Romeo and Juliet.
Bourne himself worked alongside up-and-coming associate choreographer Arielle Smith, whom Alan Vincent couldn’t praise more highly.
Shakespeare connoisseurs will not be left disappointed by Bourne’s modern interpretation; even amongst the starkness of the prison-like setting we’re gifted clever allusions to classical Romeo and Juliet imagery, including during Monaghan and Williams’ pas de deux in Act 1.
Monaghan climbs the institute walls to reach Williams and they share a kiss over the railings, a nod to the Juliet balcony trope. The pair beautifully capture the notion of first love, their movements choreographed so that their bodies hardly ever separate as they move around the stage.
The final treat is experiencing this wonderful new production accompanied by a live orchestra. Prokofiev’s instantly recognisable score is brought to life, though fittingly for this interpretation the orchestration by Terry Davis is much more pared-back.
Youthful, visceral, disturbing, Matthew Bourne’s latest work is an instant classic in New Adventures’ repertoire, sure to wow audiences for years to come. This is Romeo and Juliet as you’ve never seen it before.