Mon, 28th October 2019

Mathew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet: situating Shakespeare in Relation to Sexual Trauma

Text by: 

Alisa Matyunina

Photo by: 
Johan Persson: Cordelia Braithwaite as Juliet at Paris Fitzpatrick as Romeo

Had I known that Mathew Bourne’s ballet production of Romeo and Juliet would culminate in Juliet stabbing Romeo, I would not have taken another step to the cinema where it was being live screened.

And it seems that many people left with the impression that it was filled with ‘plot holes’ (Sarah Crompton; Guardian) and Bourne ‘needed advice with the storyline’ (muttered by people in the row behind me). All these appeared as seemingly logical responses to an outrageous and almost parodic ‘plot twisting’ of a classic.

Yet, it works.

To pedal back a bit, Bourne’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic takes place in the Verona Institute, a dystopic asylum-like school where teenagers are confined within rigid and sexually-repressive conditions. Juliet (Cordelia Braithwaite) is sexually abused by a militant yet oafish Tybalt (Dan Wright) who plays a guard at the institution. Wright’s portrayal is arguably simplistic, yet he comes together as a character who represents the brutal and hypocritical environment of a sexually-repressive organisation, which perhaps unintentionally echoes the recent scandals rocking the Catholic church. The abuse is off-stage, and is dismissed as ‘unexplored’ by Sarah Crompton, which in my view actually makes it more frightening and reminiscent of #MeToo discourse of abuse ‘behind closed doors’.

The polarising Capulet versus Montague conflict, which is the focus of many adaptations such as West Side Story, is gone, replaced with a dynamic where the young people are psychologically and physically trapped.

Romeo (Paris Fitzpatrick), an awkward gangly teenager, transforms when he meets Juliet as he becomes liberated from the constraints of their hostile environment. Juliet also finds freedom, and they both seem to rise above and beyond their broken and repressed selves. Depicted through a series of beautiful duets, their movements grow from tentative and frightened to more tender and graceful. And it is ironically their love, which is condemned by their society as unchaste, which almost brings them into another sphere which recognises the sincerity and purity of their feelings. This is depicted through their white clothes that both unify them and connote their purity, for which Tybalt and the other guards act as foils.

Yet the naïve virginal love that exists in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is broken here. Juliet’s sexual abuse, hidden off-stage, yet ever present in her mind returns with cataclysmic consequences. When the moment of first intimacy comes, the dramatic lighting and interchangeability of Tybalt and Romeo marks the fragility of Juliet’s unearthed sexual trauma.

Whereas for Shakespeare’s Juliet love and sex exist only in a beautiful virginal form, Bourne’s Juliet has her ability to love hindered by her previous experience of sexual assault: she is not able to distinguish between the patriarchal, animalistic brutality of Tybalt and Romeo’s love. So when Juliet stabs Tybalt who is quickly revealed to be a projection of her mind, we see the bleeding Romeo.
To be clear, at this point Juliet realises her mistake, and overcome with agonising remorse stabs herself with the same knife.

The bloodied, formerly white, costumes become more reminiscent from a production of Macbeth, than what we would typically see in a production of Shakespeare’s love epic.

Whilst in Shakespeare’s original we are always left thinking that had the Friar arrived sooner, or Juliet woken a few moments earlier, not all would have been lost. In Bourne’s adaptation however, the internal nature of Juliet’s trauma makes this resolution inevitable: Juliet’s trauma was not visible until this fateful moment, but it was always there – off stage. It is faithful to the original in the respect of showing the destructive power of love, for oneself and others.

The unrepresentable, unspeakable nature of trauma is perhaps what warrants the production’s mixed reception - and most critics’ missing the theme altogether - yet the effort of putting trauma on the stage merits it phenomenal praise.

This review refers to the screening of Mathew Bourne's Romeo and Juliet in the Edinburgh Lothian Road Odeon from Sadler Well's Theatre on the 21st October. More information about the production and future tour dates is available at: https://new-adventures.net/romeo-juliet