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Matthew Bourne's Romeo + Juliet - Sadler's Wells Theatre

Ah yes, a handgun in a production of Romeo + Juliet. Or is it Romeo & Juliet? Or plain old Romeo and Juliet? There’s even a pop music take on the story, called & Juliet, though even that show still has a Romeo. But it recalls to my mind the Baz Luhrmann motion picture of the Shakespeare text, where characters draw ‘swords’ which are actually guns. This production from Sir Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures company is pure dance – that is, no spoken dialogue, and unlike the touring production of the New Adventures’ Swan Lake which I caught earlier in 2019, this one has a live orchestra.

It’s a comfortable journey that lasts just shy of two hours, including an interval, and the stage is often bathed in white, both in the lighting and in the costumes of most of the characters, who appear to be in some kind of bedlam, called – wait for it – the Verona Institute. White trousers and white shirts are the order of the day, all day, every day. Romeo Montague (Paris Fitzpatrick), who in this interpretation is rather eccentric, is left with the Institute by his parents, Senator and Mrs Montague (Matt Petty and Daisy May Kemp), who have paid them a handsome sum of money.

Sir Matthew has expressed his difficulties in coming to grips with Shakespeare texts. I offer three reasons why this may be so, for him and for others. The first is that most people’s first encounter with Shakespeare, at least in the UK, is at school, read slowly, line by line, dissected and analysed in a fashion that Shakespeare (probably) never intended. There is therefore little if any motivation to have anything to do with Shakespeare texts later in life. The second is that it is largely written in what was the contemporary language of that generation, so the idioms and idiosyncrasies haven’t aged well over four hundred years. The third, as literature scholars will tell you, is that there are inconsistencies in the text, for instance to do with the passage of time within narratives.

This isn’t, when one thinks about it, Shakespeare at all. I don’t make that statement as a criticism, merely as an observation. That whole thing with the apothecary telling Juliet to drink some potion or other is gone, and Tybalt (a suitably menacing Dan Wright) lives. There are three acts, not five. There is a balcony, but it’s not used for discreet meetups between Romeo and Juliet (Cordelia Braithwaite). And so on, and so forth. The battle is effectively between the inmates, or patients, or whatever they are, against the Institute’s management and staff. It’s a little like that show I kept returning to during its relatively short runs in London in 2017 and 2018, Bat Out of Hell The Musical – the youth are in conflict with the establishment, the latter misusing – and possibly abusing – its power.

The choreography is, of course, far more exquisite than a rock and roll dystopia could ever be. The lighting (Paule Constable) is extraordinary, and the choice of music, all compositions by Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), is stunning and varied. The family feud may have been excised from the story in this version but it’s the opening tune, ‘Montagues and Capulets’ that this production returns to repeatedly during the evening. Mercutio (Reece Causton) and Balthasar (Jackson Finch) are in a relationship, which does drag the story into the modern era, and when Mercutio fails to survive a stabbing, it’s a poignant moment seeing Balthasar try to come to terms with it.

Trigger warning: there’s about as much fake blood as there is in an episode of Holby City. One of my fellow theatregoers didn’t like it, the others said they very much did! This is the kind of slick and enthusiastic reinterpretation of a well-known story that New Adventures has become known for putting on – another triumph for them. Well worth seeing.

​Photo credit: Johan Persson

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