Juliet and Romeo review – star-crossed lovers try couples therapy

Battersea Arts Centre, London
In Ben Duke and Lost Dog’s smart, wryly subversive and sexy dance-theatre piece, Juliet and Romeo didn’t die in that tomb. Worse … they grew old together

Shakespeare’s lovers sit side by side in matching armchairs, a pot plant in the space between. They’re approaching middle age and their marriage has hit a rough patch; they no longer talk, and Juliet starts to reveal that Romeo “is having difficulty …”, before he wincingly silences her. The point is they are now trying couples therapy, and the clever conceit of Ben Duke’s funny but achingly sad revision of Shakespeare’s tragedy is that the formerly star-crossed lovers are about to embark on a memory exercise in which they have to relive and re-evaluate key moments of their lives.

The first half of the work is pure pleasure as Duke and his partner, Solène Weinachter, dance and talk their way through a blissfully wry, subverted version of Romeo and Juliet. They don’t die in the tomb but elope, set up house and produce a daughter, Sophie. The truth of how they fell in love also turns out to be far more prosaic than the rarefied narratives of Shakespeare’s play or the Kenneth MacMillan ballet (both of which Duke adroitly references). When Romeo re-enacts his first encounter with Juliet, his lurching euphoric dance – accompanied by the Beatles rather than Prokofiev – is fuelled not by poetry but blind lust. When Juliet prepares to drink the Friar’s sleeping potion, her exultancy is tempered by the memory that the last drug he administered gave her thrush.

Duke’s handling of this material is beautifully assured. His writing is fast, inventive and smart; the interleaving of movement, text and music (mostly a selection of pop classics) is expertly paced. And the chemistry between Duke (a bit rumpled and thwarted) and Weinachter (elegantly, sardonically precise) is a joy: every inflection of their vocal and body language feels freighted with the history of the couple’s relationship – tender, sexy but increasingly mismatched.

Ben Duke and Solene Weinachter
A vicious trading of insults. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Their performances become deeper and darker in the second half. While Romeo adores little Sophie (it’s to her that he speaks the most exquisite lines of Shakespeare), Juliet’s weary, claustrophobic experience of motherhood is compacted into a raging solo involving a truculent toddler, a lost wallet and a parking ticket.

On one level, Duke’s work is a finely observed portrait of any marriage, where familiarity has replaced the first hormonal, metaphysical rush of desire. On another, the particular pathos of this couple is that they’re haunted by the idealised versions of themselves, in Shakespeare’s play, which they endlessly reread. When Romeo and Juliet manage 20 minutes alone together, they don’t have sex but return to a ritual enactment of their most perfect moment, back in the tomb, when they were prepared to kill themselves for love.

It’s that haunting of life by art that makes the death of their marriage so brutal. As the couple descend to a vicious trading of insults, Romeo admits he never really meant to go through with killing himself. While Juliet sits stunned, her sense of self destroyed, he rewinds the events of his life, spooling back to the moment when, instead of approaching her at the Capulet ball, he could have turned away. The shock lies not just in Romeo’s rejection of his life with Juliet but also in his demolition of the entire romantic myth erected around them; his final, ironic acceptance that life is just random and art a lie.

Juliet and Romeo is at Battersea Arts Centre, London, until 24 February. Box office: 020-7223 2223. Then at the Place, London, from 27 February until 3 March.

Contributor

Judith Mackrell

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Balletboyz's Romeo and Juliet film takes star-cross'd lovers to the street
Shot on location with lashings of fighting and flirting, Romeo and Juliet: Beyond Words is a vibrant, up-close take on one of the Royal Ballet’s best-loved gems

Lyndsey Winship

26, Nov, 2019 @11:50 AM

Article image
The week in dance: Juliet & Romeo/The Winter’s Tale review – bloody valentines
Shakespeare’s lovers live on as a warring couple trapped in a romantic narrative

Luke Jennings

18, Feb, 2018 @8:00 AM

Article image
Romeo and Juliet review – Branagh’s star-crossed lovers fail to soar
Lily James and Richard Madden certainly look the part, but are doomed by their diction

Susannah Clapp

29, May, 2016 @7:10 AM

Article image
Romeo and Juliet as bickering 40-year-olds: how dance is reimagining the lovers
The lovers are back – as jaded fortysomethings fighting over chores in Ben Duke’s production, and as lust-crazed teens in Matthew Bourne’s

Lyndsey Winship

13, May, 2019 @4:08 PM

Article image
Lear review – Shakespeare epic becomes howling hour of whimsy
Valda Setterfield, doyenne of the New York dance scene, plays the ageing monarch in a collage of movement and text

David Jays

21, May, 2018 @2:00 PM

Article image
Romeo and Juliet review: a watery death for the star-crossed lovers
Staging Shakespeare’s tragedy in a swimming baths might have seemed like a good idea, but the production quickly gets into deep water, writes Clare Brennan

Clare Brennan

27, Sep, 2014 @11:05 PM

Article image
Romeo + Juliet review – an intense rush of love and hate
Taking elements of contemporary, hip-hop, classical Indian and streetdance, Rosie Kay’s version of Shakespeare has a clamour of activity and ideas

Sanjoy Roy

09, Sep, 2021 @10:02 AM

Article image
Romeo and Juliet review – lovers and fighters are pawns in Shakespeare’s devastating game
Cavan Clarke’s Mercutio steals the spotlight in an entertaining production that foregrounds past trauma

Kate Wyver

24, Jun, 2021 @9:17 AM

Article image
Juliet and Her Romeo: Star-crossed senior citizens

Romeo and Juliet as 80-year-olds who fall in love at a tea dance? Maddy Costa meets the cast of a bold new production

Maddy Costa

14, Mar, 2010 @9:00 PM

Article image
Romeo and Juliet review – hot, hormonal inner-city tragedy
Kids film brawls on their mobile phones as flower memorials litter the set in an astonishing production that captures the play’s sense of futility

Alfred Hickling

11, Mar, 2017 @10:00 AM