Theatre Review: Romeo + Juliet at Bradford Alhambra

SET in a bleak unspecified future in the “Verona Institute”, Matthew Bourne’s new ballet takes inspiration from Shakespeare’s much-loved tragedy but exercises considerable artistic licence through significant changes. It does, however, begin traditionally with two bodies on stage in stark white lighting in what could be a morgue.

In fact, Lez Brotherston’s set is all white and very clinical with fences, separate male and female entrances, search lights and bells, suggestive of a borstal, prison, medical institution or mental health facility. Paule Constable’s accompanying overhead lighting rig has an oppressive dystopian feel too. The cast’s costumes complement this eerie white theme, except for a few characters, likely corrupt guards and in Brotherston’s ball scene where inmates are dressed in party clothes selected from what seems to be a child’s dress-up box.

Bourne’s narrative is much more fluid than Shakespeare’s original with less obvious scene distinctions, except Romeo and Juliet’s (Seren Williams) symbolic marriage, conducted by the Reverend Bernedette Laurence (Madelaine Brennan). Other famous scenes are subtly marked through sound and lighting with bird song illustrating the morning after the two romantically doomed meet, orange warning lights flashing during Tybalt’s (Danny Ruebens) death scene and Romeo’s banishment depicted through a straitjacketed stint in solitary confinement. All the while fifteen live musicians intimately play Sergei Prokofiev’s affecting score, more recently made famous by The Apprentice.

As the show progresses, Bourne’s flirtatious and playful choreography transforms to jarring movements of “madness” and delusional imaginings as a deceased Tybalt lurks in the shadows. Amidst Bourne’s potentially sinister rather negative portrayal of mental health institutes, there are moments of light relief with a clever dorm sequence and particularly comical scene as Romeo (Andy Monaghan) is committed by his celebrity parents as other patients strip him.

Bourne’s concluding scene turns Shakespeare’s story on its head with programme acknowledgements perhaps suggesting love can alleviate the pain associated with mental health issues. Certainly, a new adventure for this timely tale of love.

Romeo + Juliet shows at The Alhambra May 22-25 before continuing its UK tour:

by Leo Owen