Matthew Bourne’s Romeo + Juliet Gives a New Spin to a Timeless Classic

As a big fan of Matthew Bourne’s genre-busting ballet of Swan Lake, I was very excited to see his latest production of Romeo + Juliet playing now through February 25th at the Ahmanson Theatre. Sir Matthew Bourne is a British born choreographer who has revolutionized the world of ballet, making it more accessible to a modern audience by breaking with convention, fusing it with pop culture and making it more sexually fluid and provocative. His previous works demonstrate the breadth and diversity of Bourne’s reach into both classical and popular culture bringing his signature style to Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Edward Scissorhands and Lord of the Flies, to name a few.

ROMEO AND JULIET by Bourne, , Director and Choreographer - Matthew Bourne, Designer - Let Brotherston, Lighting - Paule Constable, Rehearsal Images, Three Mills, London, 2023, Curve Theatre, UK, Credit: Johan Persson/
Matthew Bourne’s Romeo + Juliet Captivates at the Ahmanson Theatre.

Bourne has transformed Shakespeare’s classic tale of star-crossed lovers and sets it in a reformatory for troubled teens identified as the Verona Institute – a nod to the original set in Verona, Italy. But there are no feuding families or rival gangs as in the Broadway adaptation West Side Story. The central conflict is embodied in the role of Tybalt played menacingly-well by Adam Galbraith. As the story begins, Tybalt – deployed in this adaption as a “prison guard” — is pursuing Juliet – one of the teens who is housed in this correctional facility. The power imbalance and the non-consensual nature of their interaction is the point. Their pas de deux effectively conveys the abusive nature of prison warden versus the captive prey. Meanwhile, a well-heeled, prominent couple have come to drop off their wayward, troubled son Romeo who is subjected to some relatively mild hazing at the hands of his peers who strip him of his street clothes, leaving him exposed in his skivvies. And this is where the two young lovers – Romeo and Juliet — meet cute. There’s an immediate chemistry which develops over the course of the first act.

Complications arise when Tybalt continues to exert his masochistic dominance over the teens, both male and female. When he sees a young male couple making out, he violently busts it up and chaos ensues. The Chaplain (compassionately played by Daisy May Kemp) does her best to play the peacemaker, protecting Romeo and Juliet from Tybalt’s wrath. Once the threat has receded and Romeo and Juliet are alone, they’re free to express their feelings in a lovely pas de deux which shows off the impressive talents of the two principal dancers played by Paris Fitzpatrick and Monique Jonas.

ROMEO AND JULIET by Bourne, , Director and Choreographer - Matthew Bourne, Designer - Let Brotherston, Lighting - Paule Constable, Rehearsal Images, Three Mills, London, 2023, Curve Theatre, UK, Credit: Johan Persson/
Romeo + Juliet Before Tragedy Strikes

The mood lightens in act two with a whimsical number in the (apparently coed) dormitories with a playful game of musical beds. Seeing Romeo and Juliet’s love blossom, their friends blindfold the two lovers and conduct an impromptu wedding. But the romantic interlude is cut short by the return of Tybalt who is ridiculed by the teens. In a rage, Tybalt draws his gun and takes one of the teens as a hostage, threatening them all. Romeo tries to disarm Tybalt and the hostage winds up getting shot amidst the melee. Romeo and Tybalt go at it and then Juliet (coming to Romeo’s aid) gets in on the action in a no-holds-barred fight sequence until she finally manages to restrain Tybalt by wrapping a belt around his neck. Tybalt resists, leaving her no choice but to tighten the belt’s grip, leaving two dead bodies on the stage as we head into intermission. As with Shakespeare’s original, this is a tragedy, after all.

After intermission, we find the residents/inmates of the Verona Institute grappling with the aftermath of the killings. A general malaise has overtaken the Verona Institute which is visually conveyed through dance. Romeo is now in a straightjacket (deemed a danger to himself and others) and his parents have been summoned to take him home. But as it soon becomes apparent, their son is in no shape to be discharged. Romeo’s father gets out his checkbook, paying whatever it costs to extend his son’s stay behind bars. Juliet is not faring much better, as a staff psychologist tries to intervene, to no avail.

To make matters worse for the two, Romeo and Juliet are kept apart in separate cells. That is, until the Chaplain arranges to surreptitiously reunite them. Once reunited, Romeo and Juliet are once again free to express their passion for each other through dance. The two dancers move seamlessly, exquisitely and fluidly as one. But just as we think there might be a “happily ever after” in their future, Tybalt reappears, ostensibly back from the dead. This is where Bourne’s skill as a storyteller excels, by blurring reality and illusion to get inside the minds of his protagonists. Tybalt’s re-emergence (even if it’s only a figment of their imagination) is no less jarring, sending the star-crossed lovers into a panic. Juliet retrieves her knife, but instead of killing Tybalt, she accidentally stabs Romeo. Echoing the source material, tragedy seems inescapable – a fait accompli. The tragedy is allowed to reach its emotional climax as Juliet comes to terms with the agony of having killed the love of her young life. From the audience perspective, it’s a deeply moving display of love and heartbreak as Juliet clings to Romeo in his blood-streaked clothes. Juliet takes one last kiss from her dying lover and then turns the blade on herself. And so at last, we’re left with the image of two lovers, bound in death as they were in life. The audience is left to grapple with the aftermath and connect the dots if there is any sense to be made of this unspeakable tragedy. For this is the magic of dance, to convey emotions beyond words.

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