Kissing till your lips are red raw; a couple so besotted that they dance connected at the mouth, one long snog as their bodies roll and twist around the stage. Romeo and Juliet is the story of a mad passion between teenagers and the totally OTT nature of youthful love – its naivety, enormity, insatiability, delusion. That’s what Matthew Bourne sets out to capture in this Shakespeare shake-up, and he succeeds.
Youth is the key. Bourne has cast young dancers, some still in training, and worked with a 22-year-old associate choreographer, Arielle Smith. The result is freshness and dynamism. As ever, Bourne tackles the classics on his own terms, with clever twists and hijacks of the plot (plus a few holes). Prokofiev’s ballet music is still fundamental, but it’s reorchestrated by Terry Davies for a leaner sound, the score cut and reordered: they bring out the famous Dance of the Knights almost at the top of the show. You want the hits? Bourne gives you the hits.
The setting is some sort of institution or asylum, a clinical place of shiny white-tiled walls (which reflect the moving traces of the dancers) and regimented fear. The inmates dance in stifled order and act out their demons in group therapy. Rather than warring families, this is a tale of young people pitched against the system (brutal guards, cold parents, oppressive rules) and all you need to know is that the system is bad. It’s a Manichean view, but that’s how it seems when you’re young. It fits the sometimes comic-book feel of Bourne’s world even if it can potentially stop us from drilling deep into the human core.
Romeo (Paris Fitzpatrick) arrives, the awkward newbie, callow and terrified, to be affectionately initiated by Mercutio – danced on Saturday night by the charismatic Ben Brown, dramatically brought in to cover Reece Causton, who was injured during Friday’s show. Cordelia Braithwaite’s Juliet is potentially a more complex character, subjected to abuse (off stage) by one of the guards (a menacing Dan Wright). The abuse is left unexplored, even though its consequences are seismic. It’s not the only question left unasked. But hope comes for Juliet in the form of Romeo. The moment their eyes first meet may be underwhelming, lost amid so much else happening on stage, but they make up for it later in that epic snog. Bourne captures how teen love is as much about the self as the other person. In their pas de deux, the couple make grand gestures to the universe, rather than to each other.
The show is full of fertile ideas. The staid school disco shifts to full-on raunch when the adults leave the room; Davies’s treatment of the score is incredibly effective here. Romeo and Juliet’s friends huddle excitedly for a debrief the morning after, like Grease’s Summer Nights. And in the opening of act two there’s a beautiful solo of supple, subtle dancing from Jackson Fisch (Balthasar, Mercutio’s grieving boyfriend). In Bourne’s work, the ensemble can sometimes feel as if they are dancing on a grid. Here, the injection of youth and rhythmic blast, energy, guts and endless exerting of emotion unsettles that norm. And then there’s Juliet’s mad scene, not trapped in her head but writ large on stage, a climax that has real dramatic clout, helped by Prokofiev’s extra punch and the huge commitment of the young performers.