“For never was there a tale of more woe, than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”
Who doesn’t know the tragic ending of star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet? Yet we continue to be besotted by the Shakespearean tragedy. Choreographer/Director Matthew Bourne’s 2019 restaging in movement follows the bones of the original story, but updates and re-envisions aspects reflecting contemporary societal problems and generational rifts. This production, filmed in exquisite detail by Ross Macgibbon, also borrows from West Side Story’s trope of delinquent youths, and homes in on issues of abuse, neglect, violence, and overmedication of teenagers.
Bourne has become a master of reinventing classics that speak to today’s audiences. He reconfigured the pinnacle of classical ballet, Swan Lake, with a muscular all-male corps de ballet and an embellished plot that makes Siegfried’s quest one of discovering his sexuality, not finding a princess. He set Cinderella during the London Blitz, with bombs and fires and a prince with PTSD. In an all-dance-theater version of Edward Scissorhands, he took a tale of horror and love and made it into a haunting elegy to the outsider. In every Bourne work, he utilizes his cadre of exquisitely trained actor-dancers who move with supreme ease through the warp and weft of his choreographic permutations to weave a compelling and pulse-raising tale.
This filmed version, which was available for viewing on the Kennedy Center website via a Vimeo link, fares quite well in the new virtual performance world dance and theater companies are still acclimating to. Bourne, an OBE with the official title of Sir in his native England, has spoken many times (including to me) of his love for classic Hollywood musicals as a progenitor to his evolution as a choreographer. That shows in the often cinematic methods he uses in productions, including flashbacks and flashforwards, dream scenes or dreamlike sequences, and harsh realism, as well as a touch of Chaplinesque comedy on occasion. In any case, this Romeo and Juliet, filmed before an audience and with multiple cameras at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, is itself like a complete artistic endeavor, not merely a pandemic afterthought recording with a camera plopped in place in an empty theater.
The piece opens, as other Bourne works have done, with the final snapshot: the young couple wrapped in a heart-shaped embrace. As the camera focuses in, it becomes apparent that their closed eyes aren’t sleep and those dark patches on their white costumes are blood. Then the incongruity of a school bell shatters the silence as the curtain reveals a stark white-tiled space surrounded by wire fencing and catwalks above. A sign reads: “Verona Institute.” A corps of young men and women enter in lockstep as Prokofiev’s score punctuates the silence. Clad in white uniforms and Keds, they form regiments as they parade like a doomed battalion of surly teen recruits. We see formidable Nurse Ratchett types dispensing pills and an ineffectual doctor in a frantic group therapy session. Verona Institute is a somber and frightening juvenile correctional facility and an imposing uniformed guard — imposing Dan Wright as Tybalt — keeps everyone in line.
In this Spartan Verona penitentiary, the conflict is not familial but generational: the teens rebel against the discipline and punishment meted out by the adults. A pair of wealthy, uninvolved parents drags a reluctant Romeo (Paris Fitzpatrick) — hyperactive, fresh, and sullen — in for admittance. But not until the parents increase their check is the lad let in. Enter Mercutio (jocular Ben Brown) and Balthasar (Jackson Fisch), who strip him out of his schoolboy jacket and tie and into the uniform.
Bright auburn-haired Juliet stands out from the phalanx of teen girls marching through their paces in her combination of deep longing, delicacy, and a sense of inner toughness. Tybalt, who towers over the petite Cordelia Braithwaite as Juliet, uses and torments her — an off-stage rape is suggested. The star-crossed pair meet at a boy-girl dance arranged by Reverend Bernadette (Daisy May Kemp), who is kindly but as ineffectual as her forbear Friar Lawrence.
The passionate duet captures the young lovers embracing with the desperation that only teenagers feel. They tumble into each other’s arms and share what Bourne calls possibly the longest kiss in theater history and it feels intoxicating. Oh, to be young and in love… It proves a breath of fresh air in this colorless world designed with foreboding clarity by Lez Brotherston. As in other productions, like Swan Lake, Bourne goes to the source score, in this case Prokofiev’s with its marches, waltzes, and swooning flourishes. This version features a new orchestration by Terry Davies that sometimes uses different instrumentations and sometimes snips and tucks to the score. It lends a new nervous energy at times to this Verona’s stolid environs.
The fight scene eschews swashbuckling swordplay for hand-to-hand combat, guns and knives. It plays out more like West Side Story’s Dance at the Gym, as a drunken Tybalt stumbles in to see his chosen Juliet enamored of Romeo. With the group enraged, together they take Tybalt down — an outcry against their tormentor. Romeo, though, is the one with blood on his hands. As they struggle with the severity of their deed, we see Romeo and Juliet writhe, emotionally distraught over what they have witnessed and wrought. The ending is as blood-drenched as expected as the pair — Romeo, then Juliet — die their dramatic and dreadful deaths.
As the curtain falls, they lie alone in that same opening embrace, bloodied and battered.
In updating Shakespeare’s tragedy for our time (or really 2019’s pre-pandemic period), Bourne allows the tale to embody new forms and pose new questions: about how our supposedly highly developed society raises and cares for troubled teenagers with overmedicalization and diagnosis of behavioral problems, and also about sexual and physical harassment and abuse. This isn’t the first time Bourne has touched on either and we’ve seen mental institutions in his works before. This time though he’s set forth some thought-provoking issues that are mostly kept behind closed doors — institutional care for the mentally ill. Not a topic one would expect from a dance company.
Bourne has again reinvigorated a classic to feel consequential right for now.
‘Cinderella’ at The Kennedy Center Opera House review by Lisa Traiger