Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet – Sadlers Wells

With his male Swan Lake, 1940s Cinderella and gothic Sleeping Beauty, Matthew Bourne never fails to bring a breath of fresh air and new lease of life to any classic or well known story. The overworked Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, was his latest (and possibly biggest) challenge. 

The story keeps the core theme of endless and unconditional love but lots of other elements are twisted; keeping you on your toes and not constantly remembering what was next. 

Mirroring the plot lines the setting is again, the same but different. Set in the ‘Verona Institute’ with white tiled floors and walls, tall gates and iron balconies to match. The location is far from Italy and seems to be somewhere between an asylum and a school. 

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Darker elements are added with a sinister and thug-like Tybalt who abuses Juliet within the asylum. This is symbolised through the shadow of a hand on the door and is one of the most striking moments in the piece. The matter of ‘who kills whom’ is also changed, with the same body count but different culprits, motives and methods revealing themselves.

The cold and stark set gives a clinical feel as does the dancer’s white clothing. This symbolism of purity and innocence is heavily contrasted with Tybalt’s black get up and the splatters of blood when things get messy. This also gives them a lack of identity in an institute where they are more a number than a name. 

Being a ballet, noise rarely comes from the stage but there were intentional sounds created that cleverly added to Prokofiev’s music. The click of a gate locking which made your eyes dart in a certain direction, the heaving breathing from a struggling Juliet which you could hear and almost feel from the second circle and finally the patter of the dancers white plimsolls on the stage. 

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Prokofiev’s music feels like it was written purely for Bourne’s choreography. His strong and striking movements for the ensemble fit the score like a glove with the day to day activities such as forced drug taking and compulsory group therapy shadowing the structure of the music. 

This production is all about celebrating and highlighting the talents of young performers. Bourne worked closely with 22 year old associate choreographer Arielle Smith of whom he speaks highly. Together they guided the ensemble of dancers (some as young as 16) to success. 

You don’t quite realise how young the group are until the bows where they look up and you see their youthful faces. Their age doesn’t give them away during the performance as they are constantly dancing to such a high standard. You feel like you hardly ever have time to catch your breath, so god knows how they feel. 

Each member is as strong as the next. The ensemble shine in the opening number as well as the Bourne version of the Shakespeare masked ball scene where an innocent school dance turns into a hormonal-fuelled party the moment the adults leave the room. 

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Seren Williams is a graceful and emotive Juliet with Andrew Monaghan as striking Romeo. I felt their connection lacked in places but peaked during their final scenes and a duet that kept them lip-locked as they danced around the stage and up onto the balcony. 

One of the most memorable elements was the lighting. So much thought has been poured into where shadows would fall and reflections would appear on the wall. Being sat in the second circle I felt we were treated fully to this as some of it may not have been seen as much from the stalls. 

Bourne has done it yet again. A fresh reimagining with comedic moments mixed with darker twists, new and exciting choreography performed by new and exciting dancers and a creative team to behold… oh and a sprinkle of Matthew magic.

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