Bleak, disturbed, troubled: Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet

Sadler’s Wells, London
August 23, 2019

David Mead

It is called Romeo and Juliet, and it is about a Romeo and a Juliet, but of star-crossed lovers or feuding Capulets and Montagues you will find nothing. Matthew Bourne has made a name for himself with radical re-imaginings of classic tales, and this is no different.

It does all happen in Verona, albeit the Verona Institute. Institute for quite what is left to the imagination, although the austere white-tiled walls and barred metal gates of Lez Brotherston’s designs suggest an asylum or sanitorium of sorts, a place where white-uniformed disturbed people are locked up and where boys are kept separate from girls.

Into this place is dumped Romeo by his politician parents, Senator and Mrs Montague (who rather quaintly write a cheque to ‘persuade’ Governor Escalus to take him), for no more it seems that having a bit of a twitch that they find embarrassing. Presumably, it’s an affliction brought on by them, as it magically disappears when they’re not around. It’s here that he meets Juliet, already an inmate. Needless to say, it does not end well for anyone.

Andrew Monaghan as Romeo and Danny Reubens as Tylbalt in Matthew Bourne's Romeo and JulietPhoto Johan Persson
Andrew Monaghan as Romeo and Danny Reubens as Tylbalt
in Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet
Photo Johan Persson

Bourne rushes through his story like an express train. There’s barely a moment to catch your breath. The ensemble dances are especially full of energy. Steps are punchy, literally as well as figuratively. The cast launch themselves into everything with great conviction. The duets are another story, however. Not once did I feel moved when Romeo and Juliet come together, not once did I get even a hint of sexual frission or a tingle down the spine.

Bourne’s Tybalt is a guard with a decidedly vicious streak. Played powerfully by Danny Reubens, he’s by far the strongest character in the work; although why he’s pretty much the only guard (is Verona in the grip of cuts to public services?) and how come he maintains control over so many inmates even given his violent nature is unclear. His intent as he runs his hands over every inch of Seren Williams’ vulnerable Juliet before taking her away and raping her is very plain.

Romeo (Andrew Monaghan) is rather more faintly drawn, although he is the match that lights the fire that leads to death all round. The fight scene when the drunk Tybalt discovers Romeo is also attracted to Juliet is top notch. There’s plenty of blood as Mercutio dies dramatically. When the inmates turn on Tybalt, it’s Romeo and Juliet who kill him. Bourne tosses in a final twist at the end.

Matthew Bourne's Romeo and JulietPhoto Johan Persson
Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet
Photo Johan Persson

Providing pastoral care of sorts to the inmates is Reverend Bernadette Laurence (Madelaine Brennan), a vicar so dippy you wonder how on earth she got the job. Given the usual separation of males and females, quite how come she’s allowed to arrange a dance for the inmates at which they can mix is anyone’s guess, let alone the fact that it’s not supervised properly. Indeed, security at the Verona Institute often appears to be almost zero.

While the overall sweep of the story works well, it’s just another example of detail that leaves you asking ‘Why?’ or ‘How?’ Still, it provides some colour at least, and it is at that dance that Romeo and Juliet first meet, although of sparks there are few. There’s also a slightly sinister doctor and nurse who administer drugs to their patients.

The other inmates are all in similar white uniforms. While it makes it very clear that this is a place where individuality is suppressed, it makes it very difficult to initially identify and then follow characters, including Mercutio, his boyfriend Balthazar, and Benvolio. We do see Mercutio and Balthazar’s feelings for each other, but there’s very little interaction between the group and Romeo, save for them stripping him of his street clothes and putting his white institute uniform on.

It may be largely Prokofiev’s music, but it’s been seriously chopped, changed and re-orchestrated by Terry Davies. The Dance of the Knights appears multiple times, including at the very beginning, as does the Mandolin Dance. If you know the original, it will likely drive you spare. At least it’s played live, and very well, by the New Adventures Orchestra conducted by Brett Morris.

Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet may not be Shakespeare’s, but in a way, the essence is the same. Both portray young people fighting an institution, albeit here the Verona Institute and all it stands for rather than that of family and tradition. As the programme note observes, some re-imaginings work better than others, and for me, despite its darkness, this is a Romeo and Juliet without soul, without heart. But while I may have misgivings, it should be noted that the applause at the end was enthusiastic.

Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet continues at Sadler’s Wells to August 31 (sold out), and on tour to Visit for dates and venues.

It will also be in cinemas nationwide from October 22, 2019. Visit to find your nearest screening.