Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures always provide an unexpected spin on a familiar story, and are always exciting. This is true of Romeo + Juliet (the plus sign in the title recalling Baz Lurhmann’s 1996 film, which I loved), where ‘Fair Verona’ becomes the ‘Verona Institute’, a secure place for young people with mental health problems – and also, as quickly becomes clear, a place to keep them out of sight, contained away from the rest of the world, rather than somewhere to provide treatment. (We do see some meds being given out but that’s all). It’s as radical and innovative as we’d expect from Bourne.
The opening is impressive: this is a young cast (including some local dancers), full of exuberance and energy, and as the ‘Dance of the Knights’ from Prokofiev’s score plays, the frustration of the incarcerated teenagers is apparent in every step. The cast can’t be faulted, and their enthusiasm returns the story to the teenage romance Shakespeare wrote. From the awkwardness and joy of young love to the furies and jealousies it provokes, from rebelling against authority to the establishing of individual identity, it’s all here.
And yet it isn’t. This fresh take is so fresh that it isn’t really Romeo and Juliet at all, or not as we know it (and given how many people study it at GSCE, it’s hard not to know it). I spent far too much of the performance trying to work out what was going on; where was the Nurse, was Paris there, where are there no feuding families? Of course the teenagers rebel against their incarceration, against a system which attempts to contain and subdue them, and to an extent that works, but the story is simply that a boy and a girl fall in love, in a difficult situation, and ultimately they die. I think I would have enjoyed it more had it not been called Romeo + Juliet; but then, the concepts that Shakespeare’s play summon for us, of passion and fire and the whole awkwardness of being young and in love are central to Bourne’s reconception. The moments where Romeo and Juliet dance together are the most spell-binding performances: their initial innocence and excitement contrasts with those around them, and when their fellow inmates realise, they are supported and helped, which is touchingly done. It also perhaps has something to say about current concerns about teenage mental health and its treatment.
The mental, emotional agony that all the incarcerated teenagers feel, the rejection of Romeo by his starry politician parents, the hallucinatory anguish of Juliet after she is abused by the aggressive Tybalt, is delineated in every line of the dancers’ bodies, held together by the tight, clean choreography. It’s hard not to be swept up in it, along with the reworked Prokofiev music, which contains the famous bits of the original ballet and a range of extra electronic sounds. But I did find myself wondering what was actually going on, some of the time, which is a shame.