REVIEW: Matthew Bourne’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’, Birmingham Hippodrome

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Two young lovers lie atop a mortuary slab, their bodies lifeless, their white clothing drenched in blood. 

So begins Matthew Bourne’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’, a re-imagining of William Shakespeare’s classic story, now set in a psychiatric hospital, the Verona Institute, some time in the near future.

This graphic opening image is the equivalent of Shakespeare’s prologue, and immediately highlights the ending that is in store. 

As the world’s greatest love story is given the now iconic Matthew Bourne treatment, it is expected that there will be a weight to the piece which, with just a light sprinkling of humour, is a masterpiece. Brilliantly dark, at times disturbingly so, the production is imbued with a gritty intensity, a graphic brutality, and above all, an honest humanity.

Bourne’s choreography is extraordinary. Often sharp, fierce, defiant, there is a frequent desperation to the dancers’ frantic, vulnerable, pleading movement. In the presence of hospital staff, the characters are stiff and awkward, their movement controlled and unnatural. As soon as the staff leave, as in the ball scene, the movement becomes free and fluid, looser and more natural, spontaneous and sexy. The Boys and the Girls, often kept apart, a boundary between them policed by hospital officials, dance together passionately and intimately. Once the staff return, their movement once more begins rigid, going through the motions of their daily routine, of a ritualistic life at hospital which consists of monotony and repetition, from the morning health checks, to the taking of medication, to the daily exercise. For a play with so much dialogue, Bourne’s choreography speaks volumes. No dialogue is needed. The movement is so expressive, so vivid, so full of emotion, that in its silence, says everything.

The first new production from Bourne and New Adventures since 2016’s ‘The Red Shoes’, the UK’s finest young dance talent joins the company, and performances across the board are delivered with a fierce passion. 

Romeo is taken to the Verona Institute by his seemingly famous parents, who are willing to part with a lot of money to ensure he is taken in. Though Romeo is initially picked on by some of the boys in the hospital, one gets the sense that this is done with a playfulness, as with a lighthearted initiation right, than with cruelty in mind. He is soon welcomed into the hospital, and his fellow patients, along with Reverend Bernadette Laurence, conspire to bring him together with Juliet. Andrew Monaghan’s Romeo is sublime, his movement flawlessly executed, with a gentle masculinity, and a youthful vigour. 

Juliet is a patient at the hospital when Romeo arrives. She is sexually abused by Tybalt, one of the guards and, despite her resistant behaviour, she is unable to defend herself against him, and is eventually overpowered as Tybalt carries her offstage, and assumedly rapes her. 

When Juliet leaves Tybalt’s room, Romeo watches as she expresses herself through dance, as she tries to overcome, and cleanse herself, of what has happened. Later, at the ball, the two meet, their eyes lock, and they begin to dance, continuing to do so until they are the last remaining couple of the dancefloor. So begins their consuming and forbidden love affair, which in which they so desperately try to break free of the confines of hospital life that seeks to divide them.

Seren Williams is an exquisite Juliet. Her movement walks the line between delicacy and defiancy, sometimes soft and gentle, sometimes sharp and impassioned, displaying a maturity and an understanding of her actions, and their consequences, as she is driven to madness by a guilt that overwhelms her.

The famous balcony scene becomes a breathtaking pas-de-deux between the young lovers, tender and sensual, their lips locked for an impressive amount of time as their bodies writhe and intertwine, heralding a union that will stand even in death.

Ben Brown’s Mercutio is boisterous and laddish, occasionally vulgar, but affectionate and adoring alongside João Carolino’s devoted Benvolio. 

Danny Reuben’s Tybalt is villainous and violent, abusing his position by taking advantage of those in his care. 

Madelaine Brennan’s Reverend Bernadette Laurence is kindly and sympathetic, and can be relied upon by Romeo and Juliet to be discreet, and aid them when necessary. Occasional comic relief comes from Brennan’s delightful Reverend.

Lez Brotherston’s set comprises of the inner walls of the hospital, tiled and white, sterile and clinical. For certain scenes, a large tiled ceiling piece descends, reminiscent of a medical examination lamp, which places the characters under constant scrutiny, in order that their behaviour is magnified. This severe set – passionless, impersonal, unfeeling, cold and inhuman – is an ironic setting for the greatest love story ever to be told, the bones of which contrasts starkly with its loveless, lifeless set.

The use of colour is particularly interesting in the production, in terms of Brotherston’s costume design. The patients, including Romeo and Juliet, are dressed completely in white, belonging to their setting. The staff, by contrast, are adorned in black. Though the Boys and the Girls are kept separate, two groups, two households, one might say, it is actually the patients and the staff that form the two opposing sides, chess pieces lockerd in an ‘us vs them’ state. The white collar of Reverend Laurence against her black top and trousers represents her sympathies with the patients, and she does what she can to help and protect the children in her care. 

Matthew Bourne’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is a violent delight which, in all its dark and bloody gory, captures the very essence of humanity that Shakespeare describes through his poetic imagery. Raw, graphic, sensual and violent, with a primal savagery and animalistic brutality, the production highlights what mankind is capable of, be it immense violence, or a love that transcends death itself. 

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