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25 August 2019updated 23 Jun 2021 9:26am

Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet: intimate, raucous and wild

By Lea Ypi

Romeo and Juliet is, of course, a story about love. But it’s also a story of teenage angst. Two young people who feel huge, glancing emotions for the first time collide straight into each other, brushing up against the tyranny and injustice of authority in the process. This is something that choreographer Matthew Bourne understands.

In his adaptation of Romeo & Juliet, on now at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, Bourne completely reinvents the classic tale – as with most of his productions, he only preserves the skeleton of the original story. To my surprise, Bourne does away with Shakespeare’s warring families and botanist monks. Instead, we are introduced to the “Verona Institute”, where the teenage characters are force-fed drugs, sexually abused and placed in straight jackets.

Out of all the characters, Juliet (Seren Williams) is most changed. A victim of rape, her character is emboldened and ferocious. Romeo (Andy Monaghan), the son of a politician, is innocent and awkward. In this way, the tale is brought to the present day and questions of gender politics and mental health are placed at the centre of the narrative. Remarkably, it works.

At the heart of this work is the exuberant energy of the young dancers, choreographers and sound designers. Bourne’s dance company, New Adventures, underwent a nationwide search last year for young dance talent, recruiting 16 teenagers to join the production, while members of the creative team are also paired with a young artist. The production also recruited the 22-year-old choreographer, Arielle Smith – one of the youngest in the business.

The young music team, led by Terry Davies, reworked the well-known ballet score by Sergei Prokofiev. Davies aimed to make it smaller for a more intimate audience and as a result, the musicians play two to three different instruments each during the performances. All this emerging talent brings a thrilling vibrancy to the stage.

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The crowning scene of the production sees Romeo and Juliet kiss for minutes as – impossibly – they continue to dance across the stage. They tumble and dive, the entire time remaining glued to each other’s mouths. Like the uninhibited dancing of their co-prisoners, emotion and teenage desire rushes off them. The intimacy of the scene is stunning to watch.

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The true talent of Matthew Bourne is his ability to capture these first glimpses of passion in a way that feels recognisable. By stripping away the story, he presents us with its beating heart. Steeped in teenage intensity, his reinvention of this classic tale is authentic and powerful.  As I watch the lead dancers roll over and under each other on stage, I am, more than anything, reminded of how joyous it feels to fall wildly in love.