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"You don’t need words to tell a compelling story": Matthew Bourne's Romeo & Juliet

Transporting the setting of the story to an institute for young adults, everything about Bourne’s production oozes class. But his real talent is his ability to convey a narrative so easily through movement.

3 October 2023 at
33880 Matthew Bournes Romeo and Juliet Rory Macleod Romeo Monique Jonas Juliet Photo by Johan Persson 4

Rory Macleod as Romeo and Monique Jonas as Juliet in Matthew Bourne's Romeo & Juliet.

Photo by Johan Persson

In this reimagining of the classic tale, Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures blends the excitement and youthful exuberance of first love with the heartbreak of loss which befalls the two protagonists.

Transporting the setting of the story from the city of Verona to The Verona Institute, an indeterminate institute for young adults, in this retelling it is not feuding families that keep the young lovers apart but the authoritarian regime that they are subjected to, alongside the power imbalance between the wards and their wardens.

Inmate Juliet is the object of affection of the brutal warden, Tybolt, who abuses his position whilst her friends can only look on helplessly. When she and new arrival Romeo meet and fall in love, Tybolt’s jealousy becomes palpable, leading to a confrontation which will change the lives of the inmates for ever.

Everything about Bourne’s production oozes class. The set and costumes are stripped back from his other more sumptuous productions, broadly comprising of a stark white colour palate punctuated by the occasional blots of colour, allowing the focus of the audience to be on the choreography, undertaken to perfection by the immensely talented cast.

Setting the narrative to the familiar classical score of Prokoviev’s Romeo and Juliet, Bourne opens the proceedings with wave upon wave of undulating, angular movement to establish the authoritarian oppression of the institute and the repetitive nature of the mundane life for those living there, before yielding to the more tender and intimate choreography between the two star-crossed lovers as they fall in love, ultimately culminating in a tense, dramatic ending which is filled with genuine pathos.

There is much to admire about Bourne’s choreography. There is tremendous representation on stage, with same sex couples being prominent both in the characterisations and in the dance pairings. But Bourne’s real talent is his ability to convey a narrative so easily through movement and to create such wonderfully diverse and clearly defined characters. What I have always appreciated about his work is the ability to make every character uniquely individual, no matter how large or small their part play in the main narrative is. Seeing the detail that has gone into defining the persona of each character on stage is a joy. Even when the main focus is elsewhere, no one stands aimlessly at the back of the stage waiting for their cue, meaning that there is always something else to find happening away from the main event.

Paris Fitzpatrick and Monique Jonas as Romeo and Juliet had tremendous chemistry and danced beautifully together throughout the performance. There is credit due to Ben Brown as Mercutio, who stood out from the ensemble with his enthusiasm, energy, charisma and performance. That said, it feels unfair to single out any performer from what was a universally talented cast. It's genuinely difficult to fault any of them, especially as many are making their professional debut in this production.

There are a few scenes which may be difficult to watch for some. The victimisation of Juliet by Tybolt in particular may be distressing, and the red on pristine white clothing as the story reaches its bloody denouement is both visually intriguing and unnervingly stark. But there is plenty of Bourne’s trademark humour nestled within and the work is performed so magnificently by the young cast.

Whilst it may seem that this story has been told a thousand times and that there is nothing new to do with it, this production will convince you otherwise, ably demonstrating that you don’t need words to tell a compelling story – even if those words were originally crafted by the Bard himself.

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