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Verona has never been as high-concept as this. Set in the “near future” where society has crumbled, and “wealthy families” and “urban gangs” alike have sought refuge in the city’s abandoned theatres (I know – hits a bit close to home), this new production of Romeo & Juliet is as daring behind the camera as it is front of it. Produced in only two weeks, the cast mostly recorded their parts individually against a green-screen, and then were edited together and transplanted into a CGI world – aesthetically, think Phantom of the Opera meets the Matrix.
Inasmuch, director Nick Evans leans into this idiosyncratic presentation, hoping it will distinguish his Romeo & Juliet from the countless others that are soon to be released (including one by the National Theatre). The virtual backgrounds put together by Visual Effects Producer, Ryan Metcalf, are equal-parts garish and impressive: art-deco changing rooms, ethereal coffins, grungy alleyways, and Gatsby-esque ballrooms. Add Natasha Bowl’s anachronistic costume design into the mix and this Verona is otherworldly; strange and timeless and dreamy.
There is, of course, the undeniable irony of having the CGI capability to set the play absolutely anywhere…and choosing an abandoned theatre. Ironic, but sweet. It’s as if the creative team are using the most famous romance of all time to pen a love letter to the currently-vacant theatreland. Unfortunately, despite this saccharine intention, the ugly visuals obfuscate the delivery. The uncanny-valley effect exists in every shot, permeating into every scene, and slightly ruining every performance: no matter how energetic the young cast are, they’re simply no match for the weirdly flat and woefully distracting backgrounds that upstage them.
Moreover, by not being in the same room together, the performances never truly gel – intensities don’t quite match, and slight-lines are way off (and don’t even get me started on the damp-squid fight sequences…). It’s no surprise that the best performances come from the titular characters, because they were at least allowed to record a few scenes together. Sam Tutty, who just won an Olivier as Evan Hansen, brings a down-beat thoughtfulness to Romeo that is really rather refreshing: this isn’t a warring gang-leader, but a teenager earnestly trying to work through his feelings. His sharp skill is effortlessly matched by Emily Redpath’s Juliet, whose steely demeanour occasionally lets slip a surprising vulnerability; top-notch stuff.
Really, it’s the performances of this young cast that rescue the show. With almost half of them having graduated drama school in the midst of the pandemic, they offset that gloom by bringing an eagerness that makes the whole production buzz with energy. From John Labey’s metrosexual Paris to Daniel Bowerbank’s stalwart Benvolio, the cast make every line electric with character and dynamism. Despite director Nick Evans revelling in the dystopian atmosphere (and the equally terrifying filming method), with these up-and-comers set to fill the wings, theatre’s “near future” looks very, very bright.
Romeo and Juliet streams online until 27 February. For more information and tickets, see the RomeoJuliet2021 website.