In the last calendar year, I have spent a lot of time working with the text of Romeo and Juliet, both as a performer and a teacher. Though I have a deep love of this play and its poetry, my students have made it abundantly clear that Shakespeare is not only boring, but inaccessible to many young and modern audiences. This isn’t necessarily new—nor is the idea of a contemporary adaptation of a classic play. However, Matthew Bourne’s Romeo + Juliet is not just a retelling, but rather a revelation of the quintessential tragedy. The show is sexy, poignantly visceral and completely compelling for modern audiences, transcending barriers of language, literacy, and age.
Developed in collaboration with his company New Adventures, director/choreographer Matthew Bourne first presented Romeo + Juliet in 2019, and the show now makes its North American premiere at The Ahmanson Theatre. Like his previous works (including Swan Lake, Cinderella, and Play Without Words), Romeo + Juliet is a dance piece with no dialogue, save a few wordless yells. While the production forgoes iambic pentameter, Terry Davies’ orchestrations of Prokofiev’s original score provide a pounding heartbeat of rhythm, guiding the show for its two-hour duration (excepting one 20-minute intermission). Stripped of both iconic poetry and tedious length and language, Bourne and company distill the tragedy down to its most embodied state.
Set within the confines of the Verona Institute, an asylum-like boarding school or detention center of some kind, a tragic romance springs between fated lovers Romeo and Juliet in spite of the oppressive supervision of guards and orderlies, headmasters and parents. The lovers, along with a cohort of misfortuned teens, eventually fall victim to the violence of institutionalized structures of power. Rather than the somewhat outdated idea of blood feuds among nobility, the students at Verona Institute are divided among alternate lines: boys and girls, children and grown-ups, inmates and jailers. Though Bourne and company take substantial artistic liberty in telling this age-old story, Romeo + Juliet is in constant conversation with its source material, especially in the moments when it diverges from and subverts the original text.
The striking set and costume design by Lez Brotherston emphasize the divisiveness of the world. The institution is physically divided with “Boys” on the left and “Girls” on the right (a distinction that already leaves certain students behind). All students, however, are united by their white pajama-like uniforms, while the adults wear dark colored clothing. The single location set is physically encompassed by a stark white chain link fence, locking the students on the stage, and preventing their escaping the watchful eyes of the guards and of the audience.
The performers are absolutely captivating, each of them deeply tragic and dangerously human. They work together as one organism, and their discipline and ability alone is worth a trip downtown. As mentioned, the show is entirely a dance performance, though not a ballet. Rather it mixes conventions of theatre, modern dance, and ballet together into an evocative, visceral, and highly engaging dance-theatre. I found the performance somewhat reminiscent of the Tanztheater of Pina Bausch, though slightly more literal in its relation of story and character to movement.
Classically, Romeo and Juliet follows two particularly unlucky teens, whose family circumstances and unruly hearts doom them to a unique tragedy. But Bourne’s production suggests a slightly different interpretation—Romeo and Juliet (on the magnificent Paris Fitzpatrick and Monique Jonas) are but two abused children in a system full of similar trauma. The love story of Mercutio (Cameron Flynn) and Benvolio (Euan Garrett) plays parallel to that of the titular lovers; their story, too, cut short when Mercutio is murdered by Tybalt (Adam Galbraith), an abusive guard caught in a fit humiliation, desperation, and homophobic rage.
The private lives, loves, and losses of all the students haunt the stage, the glassy walls of the Institute reflecting the ghosts of generations of forsaken kids. Their desire for self-expression and self-determination are completely suppressed by the adults in power. Constrained to rigid, doll-like movements, a jerk here and twitch there hint to the tension boiling just below the surface. Indeed, when the adults turn their backs, the teens explode into passionate embrace and even childish glee. Immature, far too bold, and giddy, Romeo and Juliet steal an under-the-bleachers kind of love. The only adult sympathetic to their plight is Rev. Bernadette Laurence (Daisy May Kemp), a figure of real benevolence and acceptance, but whose do-gooding within the structure of the system fails her students several times over.
Romeo + Juliet is a uniquely compelling piece, recontextualizing the classic tragedy in themes of trauma and divisiveness that are accessible and potent to modern audiences. The show is beautiful, smart, and gripping. Three days later and I think have told every person I know that this one is a must-see. With passion and power, Bourne and company will somehow leave you shocked by an ending you already know.
Matthew Bourne’s Romeo + Juliet runs January 28th through February 25th at The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N Grand Ave., downtown at The Music Center. Tickets range $40-$160 and can be purchased here.