The Battersea Arts Centre is the kind of place you could imagine Romeo and Juliet meeting: the ceilings are high, the paint gaudy but peeling, the lighting soft. It lends slight atmosphere to Juliet and Romeo: A Guide to Long Life and Happy Marriage, which is a lean and clever animal from Lost Dog, an intimate examination of a couple falling apart.
Ben Duke and Solène Weinachter, the devisers of this piece, give performances that are at all times believable, likeable and moving. It’s made clear to us from the outset that we’re working from an alternate ending of the play, with their deaths avoided and the setting modernised. Juliet and Romeo want to relive memories together as part of a reconciliation process, they hope, and the audience’s presence is in aid of this. It’s a semi-realistic take on the canon material, as we see that having escaped death and separation, the young couple barely know each other and have difficulty adapting to their new lives together in effective exile. There is the reference from The Graduate you expect, but it allows for a dance to ‘The Sound of Silence’ in which the two push into and against each other’s bodies as if fighting – but instead the suggestion is of emotional, really ugly sex.
All of the dances are well conceived, from the angular, teenage and clumsy first sighting to the joyful synchronisation to ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ that shows us the connection between the two as they get back into their groove following a miscarriage, and Romeo’s frustrated unwinding of himself to ‘That’s Life’, frustrated by Juliet’s obsessive replaying of their death scene. Yes, the death scene is on the table; Shakespeare, a friend of Friar Lawrence, crafts a script from their story, and the way he has things play out differently from the characters’ lives is a sticking point for both of them, an increasingly significant contributor to their alienation from each other.
The concept here is playful and boundlessly fertile, the production seamless and the refreshing lighting design (by Jackie Shemesh) subtly accentuates everything. Romeo and Juliet has long been a favourite of mine which might influence why I winced at some of the choices in creating the dynamic here: Juliet is the one constantly having to coax Romeo to access his emotions, to take part, to be expressive, which is quite a change from the source. Juliet was certainly a more authoritative and driving force than Romeo, even if he saw her first and wanted her, but he was never reluctant to meet her fire. So too, when in this version he spits that she looks just like her mother, it all seems very stereotypical. And that Romeo had actually decided to put aside the poison and live, leading to a horrified reaction from Juliet when revealed – there is no attention paid to the fact that it was this moment which allows for Juliet and Romeo to take place, for the two of them to have the chance to fuck each other up so badly, to have a daughter, to have had more life. But perhaps pausing to reflect on this would have called for another very different ending.
Despite that prevailing tone, there’s no shortage of laughs wrung out of us by Duke and Weinachter. What we’re left with is another tragedy from Shakespeare’s altogether, and an excellent example of an irreverent approach to a classic.
Photo: Jane Hobson