Review – Matthew Bourne’s Romeo + Juliet, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 28th May 2019

Romeo + JulietHas there ever been an original work that has inspired more variations than Romeo and Juliet? From the Russian ballet of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, to West Side Story and a whole lot of other works, those star-cross’d lovers have influenced so many creative souls. And in language too – how many times have you heard that someone was “a bit of a Romeo”? I’m yet to meet “a bit of a Juliet”, although, considering Matthew Bourne’s new version, that might not altogether be a bad thing….

R+J in loveFollowing their successful Lord of the Flies, Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures company has continued its groundbreaking work with young dancers. Not only have some of that class of 2014 gone on to carve dance careers for themselves, but for more than a year now the company has worked with six young, local dancers in each of the locations where Romeo + Juliet will be staged, integrating them seamlessly into the professional cast. It wasn’t until the final curtain call that I worked out who were the local young dancers in our production – each and everyone of them gave a first-class performance and I have great hopes for what they will go on to achieve.

Set in the not too distant future, the Verona Institute is one of those vaguely intimidating establishments that may have originally been set up for the good of its patients (or its inmates, or its captives, you decide) but has gone distinctly off-message with the cruelty of its security staff and the strictness of its mentors. Think Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in cahoots with Hamidou the prison guard in Midnight’s Express and you get the picture. Only the kindly Rev. Bernadette Laurence, who happily encourages music, dancing and – let’s not deny it – sexual intimacy between members of her imprisoned flock, goes against the grain – albeit to no benefit to herself.

R+J Glitterball sceneSome adaptations are close to the original; others are not. This, being Matthew Bourne’s conception, takes the original Romeo and Juliet as a mere hint of a serving suggestion. There’s no sense of warring Montagues and Capulets, no prior love intrigue between Romeo and Rosaline, no apothecary and no poison. Tybalt, rather than channelling his violence towards massacring Montagues, concentrates on physical and sexual abuse towards Juliet, traditionally his cousin. Mercutio and Balthasar have a gay relationship; and Juliet kills Romeo, which, having thought long and hard about it in the hours since I saw the show, is a concept with which I still have a lot of problems.

R&JAll the hallmarks of a top-quality Matthew Bourne production are there. Lez Brotherston’s set is so evocative of a municipal/school swimming pool with its white shiny bricks, and its separate Boys and Girls entrances (to which no one pays any attention), that you can almost smell the chlorine. What makes it different is the prison-style barred doorways and gates that step up the sense of the young patients being shut off and incarcerated. Outside there’s probably an exercise yard. Why anyone would voluntarily check in, like Romeo’s parents appear to do with him, beats me. Remind me not to book into the Verona Institute; it isn’t anything like as appealing as it looks in the promotional brochure.

Brett Morris’ fantastic orchestra play those sumptuous Prokofiev melodies with power and eloquence. The score has been re-orchestrated for this production, choosing a different combination of instruments, in an attempt to modernise it, create an acoustic sound-world (so says the programme) and make it generally more relevant. It works very well; the music is stunning throughout and accompanies the dancing perfectly.

R+J togetherThe dancers are all on excellent form, with some beautiful pas de deux from Paris Fitzpatrick and Cordelia Braithwaite as the eponymous couple, the powerfully menacing movement and presence of Dan Wright as the fearsome Tybalt, and a characterful and cheeky coupling of Reece Causton as Mercutio and Jackson Fisch as Balthasar. Daisy May Kemp brings humour to the role of the Reverend Bernadette, and there’s some superb and eye-catching work from Callum Bowman’s Sebastian, Hannah Mason’s Frenchie and Bryony Harrison’s Dorcas.

However, despite all these excellent ingredients, apart from Balthasar’s decline into zombie level distress after the death of Mercutio, I found it all strangely unmoving. The dance begins, Blood Brothers-like, with a melodramatic tableau of the dead Romeo and Juliet on their slab, so you already know it’s imbued with fatalism and isn’t going to end well. The dancing and choreography are spectacular to watch, the visual effects are very powerful (wardrobe must curse all that blood on those nice white clothes), and there are some amusing and horrific vignette moments that keep you thoroughly entertained. But at the end of the day, I feel this is too far away from the original Romeo and Juliet story to bathe in its reflected tragedy. Of course, as a Matthew Bourne creation, it naturally still towers over many other modern dance productions, simply by dint of its expansiveness, its inventive choreography and its overall vision.

R&J in glitterThe tour continues to Plymouth, the Lowry, Cardiff, Sadler’s Wells, Norwich, Birmingham, Canterbury, Southampton, Nottingham and winds up in Newcastle in mid-October. Bourne aficionados will want to see it as a matter of course, and will doubtless love its sheer spectacle; why wouldn’t you? Romeo and Juliet fans might be slightly more disappointed. It goes without saying that the terrific performances carry it through; but, knowing how astounding Sir Matthew’s dance works can be, something in me kinda wanted more.

Production photos by Johan Persson

8 thoughts on “Review – Matthew Bourne’s Romeo + Juliet, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 28th May 2019

  1. I note your reservations about this particular production, but speaking more generally, it’s only in recent years that I’ve become familiar with this score (after someone sent me a VHS video of the classic Fonteyn/Nureyev production) and I have to say that music-wise it’s a beauty of a piece, so well calculated and expressed in terms of the story. Of course we all know how the ‘Dance of the Knights’ has been to done to death and beyond, though the sardony in that music is lost when taken out of context. But the entire score is a jewel and I’m so grateful I’ve got to know it even at this late stage in life. I’d love to see it performed though the music alone and in isolation is easily fine enough to stand on its own. But lucky you in having experienced it in the form it was intended.

    • Fortunately I was a classical music-inquisitive child with an indulgent parent who bought me tons of albums for Christmas, so I got to hear this score quite young! Musically the show is very impressive 😀

      • That was indeed fortunate for you. I’m at the age now where I’ve got no time to pretend I like something in order to appear expert/intellectual/sophisticated which in my heart I don’t really care for, and to explore or discover those that I’ve somehow managed to miss before it’s too late. Early throwings-out for me (which you may well gasp at) have been just about all the Mozart operas – in fact a hell of a lot of Mozart other than a half dozen each of chamber music, symphonies and a few other bits & pieces – though keeping MOST of the piano concertos!

        Btw: A few years ago I read somewhere that during the 19th century alone it’s estimated that something like 10,000 symphonies have been written the world over (= in the ‘west’ obviously) – yet how many would be in the repertoire of most orchestras – 50, 60? Bound to be untold quantities of gems out there just waiting to be ‘discovered’. Makes one think.

        (I’ll catch up on your subsequent postings later).

      • That’s an amazing statistic!! My guess is that nowadays it would be too much of a financial risk for orchestras to cast their nets more widely and rediscover those gems – more’s the pity.

        I’ve never really “got in” to Mozart. I rather agree with the stuffy character in “Amadeus” who complains that his music has “too many notes”. I would never have had those recordings to start with!

        And, absolutely; there’s a lot of pretence about what one loves in all the arts. It’s liberating to be able to admit in public that one likes Agatha Christie and Eurovision, whilst still enjoying Shakespeare and Prokofiev. As Whitman wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes” (my favourite quotation). Who cares if others look down on you?!

  2. I see your postings are increasing almost daily so I know I’ve already got a lot catch up on – but just to let you know that I’ve got a ticket for the relay from Covent Garden of R & J into cinemas for a week on Sun, though it’s the Kenneth Macmillan production. It’s a performance that was belatedly added because the first one was sold out – as this very nearly already is too. Looking forward to it immensely, though more for hearing the music with visual context rather than the look of it. Okay, so I do wish it had been the Matthew Bourne production that you saw but as I’ve never seen it on stage at all it’ll still be an advancement. Did you ever see it, this or any other prior-to-Bourne production? I’ll be letting you know my views, probably under here as I can’t imagine there’ll be that much interest for my own blog.

  3. I’ve actually just found (oh dear!) that it’s the same choreography as the vintage Fonteyn/Nureyev production on the video I have, previously mentioned. Should have checked first or, at least might have guessed. Still, £13.50 is surely a lot cheaper than being physically there in the flesh – and it’s most unlikely to be exactly ‘bad’!

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