Words by Katie Hagan. 03/05/19 – Brook Theatre, Chatham.
As its title suggests, Lost Dog’s Juliet & Romeo is an interpretation of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. Except this isn’t a play about naive star-crossed lovers, it is a piece of dance theatre about a middle-aged, bitterly incompatible couple who seek marriage counselling after 20 years. To break the fourth wall the audience are their counsellors, and Juliet invites us to watch the sharing of their memories which they will re-enact before us.
Romeo is not happy with this and throughout the piece he is highly uncomfortable with Juliet’s dramatic tendencies. A recurring trope is the death/suicide scene, in which Juliet incessantly pleads with Romeo to act it properly; to fully capture, embrace and present the ‘if you love me, then die for me’ fantasy that she desperately believes is a real affirmation of Romeo’s love.
But as Juliet reads from Shakespeare’s text and they argue over who is accurately remembering their memories, Juliet shouts the text is “more true than what happened.” Solène Weinachter as Juliet brilliantly encapsulates the insecurity of being in a failing relationship. She’ll believe and do anything to even repair the tiniest part. She starts the journey for us and takes us along, in a wry, suspecting and completely hopeless attempt to fix herself, Romeo and their bond.
And in his confession – whilst Juliet is listening to music – Romeo informs us he thought he could live without Juliet instead of committing suicide. These are just two examples of Duke’s dexterous undoing of Shakespeare’s immortal love story. And in all their brilliance, these vignettes reduce the Bard’s play to something insubstantial, dumb, fantastical and illusionary. More of this please.
The choreography is effortless, subtle and as with everything perfectly placed. Featuring plenty of contact, the choreography acts like the tide, bringing the couple together at one moment and then drawing them apart. They struggle in each others arms and fail to get positions right. One section is a combination of foreplay and fighting, reinforcing the couple’s incompatibility. Unlike Juliet and Romeo’s relationship, the choreography feels right.
The irony in Duke’s piece is nothing other than a complete marvel. As Prokofiev’s score plays in the background, we don’t get a balletic pas de deux but an erotically awkward duet that is littered with Elizabethan court dances and probably the word’s most awkward partnering lift.
Throughout the entire piece, Duke creates bricolages of ‘Shakespeare’s influence throughout time’. In this part, their duet is performed to Des’ree’s ‘Kissing You’. But instead of Clare Danes coquettishly averting Leonardo DiCaprio’s gaze through a fish-tank, we get Duke about to buckle under the weight of Weinachter; Des’ree’s lyric “the aching” wonderfully articulating Romeo’s physical over-exertion as opposed to heartache.
Juliet & Romeo boldy proclaims that Shakespeare’s words do not tell their story but fuel the illusion of their relationship. The choreography works to undercut Shakespeare’s fantasy. It rocks all pretences to unearth what is really going on here. We get tender moments, and we feel Juliet’s pain when she stands in isolation; a depressed mother facing life alone whilst Romeo galavants around Berlin. These are realities that both Juliet, and Shakespeare, would have never imagined.
The end arrives a little too quick. Romeo replies to all the questions Juliet didn’t want him to answer: yes he watched porn, and if she died he would marry the lady who works in the shop. The end is met with sadness and not tragedy, as both walk away from something that is never going to work.
Shakespeare would have never told a story about a nice couple who dutifully make compromises for one another out of love. But Ben Duke has made a timeless piece of dance theatre, with a fertility that I will suspect make it an unmissable show for decades to come. Duke and Weinachter are absorbing, and the work itself is refreshingly original. It’s the kind of piece you can see again and again and something new would resurface every time.
Lost Dog is touring spring/summer 2019, see their website for details. Image from Lost Dog.