September 11, 2019
Heavily referencing Ken Keysey’s 1960s masterpiece One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and its themes about mental health incarceration, Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet lands splay-pawed and full-throttle in the claustrophobic world of the not too distant future and the brutality of The Verona Insitute, a mental home-cum-dumping ground-cum-prison of the old and worst kind.
Here inmates of all genders are banged up, perhaps in a psychiatric prison regime, but precisely why, it’s difficult to say. No actual or probable crimes are ever referenced. The women, and some of the men, heft overtones of Blanche Dubois, the almost professional sex victim of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, but everyone seems inexplicably incarcerated for ever in a nightmare place simply for the crime of existing, leaving the viewer to decide on credible gender or political transgressions they may have perpetrated. But the emphasis is on the possible offender, not the crime. It sounds like cutting edge stuff for ballet but the gym work-out-style choreography of Act I especially looks slightly off-target given the vagueness regarding context and crimes.
At times, the generally enigmatic framework of the action also makes it hard to empathise with so many undifferentiated characters. People with no names or identities often remain mere ciphers and in such a large cast, and given the anonymity of the institution itself, they struggle to develop in the main beyond sketchy outlines. Some of the named characters are pretty hard to work out too.
If the first half seems a tad overlong at an hour plus, the much shorter second half simply rips by showing Bourne hasn’t lost his touch. Now the works becomes powerful, beautifully expressing the complex emotions of these anonymous inmates, all trapped souls, of prison, of society, of hell, or of just themselves.
Despite a few doubts, Romeo and Juliet is another triumph for Bourne, entering here more than usually expressionistic new territory.
Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet runs at the Hippodrome until Saturday 14th September. For details and tickets visit www.birminghamhippodrome.com or call 0844 338 700.