‘Shakespeare meets Skins’: MokitaGrit’s latest production of Romeo and Juliet provides audiences with a modern twist on the timeless classic.
Staged within the courtyard of the Mosaica Chocolate Factory, from the second you enter the intimate space audience members cannot help but feel incorporated in the urban world that director Adam Welsh is aiming to create: music pounds and reverberates in my chest whilst free-runners and hip-hop dancers body-pop and back-flip around me. The atmosphere definitely creates a sense of ‘event’ rather than ‘play’ and you instantly feel as if you’ve been dropped within a pre-existing situation. Gang tensions become apparent immediately between the dancers and the parkours who banter with them from the rooftops above, challenging them to perform and ridiculing eachothers’ trips or falls. I sit and find myself (rather embarrassingly) awestruck by the way in which the young performers move about the space – movements seem utterly effortless as their bodies move like liquid. The strong sense of movement and its relationship with Shakespeare’s text is a consistent element of the entire production. Performers physically create the vault-like doors to Friar Lawrence’s cell, free-runners slickly manipulate scene changes and Roger Martin’s tightly choreographed fight scenes incorporate dance and martial art-style movements.
Esther Smith captures the innocence of Juliet with absolute perfection. Her small stature and delicate features enable Smith to pass easily as a girl no older than fourteen, and it’s this visual reminder of Shakespeare’s intended age for the young Juliet that makes the woeful love story all the more tragic. However, Smith does far more than simply play ‘naïve’ to secure her character: the emotional depth that she provides Juliet with is unfaultable and impossible not to feel affected by. Smith’s onstage ‘true love’ – Kyle McFail – is equally flawless in his portrayal of the troubled Romeo. With a warm Scottish lilt, McFail depicts as honest-a-Romeo that I can imagine: he doesn’t provide a text-book representation of love, but one filled with infatuation, elation, anxiety, lust and utter despair. To see McFail and Smith embrace is truly beautiful and although I’m not big in any way on crying in the theatre, to witness them together throughout the final stages of their tragic love-tale is extremely moving.
The exceptional star-crossed lovers are supported by a strong and finely tuned cast and it was exciting to find that for a handful of the young cast members it was their first real stage debut. Not that I could have handpicked who those newbie’s were without the aid of the programme – which I always take as a good sign? Duncan Wilkins as Mercutio is a tremendous crossbreed of Jonny Depp circa the ‘Jack Sparrow’ era and Russell Brand, only more eloquent and more outrageous. There is something desperately sad about Wilkins’ depiction of the clowning Mercutio – a subtle hint of unhappiness underlies his otherwise hilarious outward persona. Again, like Smith and McFail, Wilkins provides his character with depth so that we may view him as something grittier than ‘Shakespeare’s Mercutio’ as we’ve possibly (definitely!) seen performed time upon time before. At the risk of dedicating a paragraph to each cast member, Tom Greaves’ Paris was also wonderful. A character that tends to receive minimal attention with regards to the larger or louder characters, Greaves’ awkward and cringe-worthy Paris worked brilliantly to combat traditional alpha-male representations of the intended suitor for Juliet.
Aside from a cast that I cannot help but gush shamelessly about, the most interesting aspect of MokitaGrit’s production is the staging and the arrangement of the audience. We’re nestled between the high walls of buildings; at one end is a wall with windows through which characters deliver lines, at the other is a rooftop platform that acts as a multitude of settings, including Juliet’s delivery of ‘where for art thou Romeo?’. The audience is split in two and positioned, facing one another, on either side of the ground-level space. This arrangement works in a number of ways. Firstly, as some of the action takes place literally behind you at some points (there is definitely a ‘better’ end to sit at!) it means that audience members sometimes find themselves craning to spot where the action is coming from, or at some points, choosing which part of the action they’ll dedicate their time to. Secondly, audience members find themselves face to face with one another, separated by a performance space perhaps only 4 metres wide. At one point during the very last scene, I recall glancing at the gentleman sitting directly opposite me, watching his expression to the heartfelt speeches that were being given a mere couple of feet between us. And that’s the thing – with such an arrangement, you do end up at times focusing on other audience members, searching for expressions and often, finding them mirroring yours. Not that I consider that a bad thing. If anything, it added a further dimension to what I was watching.
As far as Shakespearean productions go, MokitaGrit’s Romeo and Juliet provided me with some interesting characterization choices, interesting staging aspects and gave an otherwise classical production an urban twist. The cast still spoke in Shakespearean dialogue, and characters were still rather distinctly split in terms of status, yet I felt that I was able to fully invest – emotionally and psychologically – in Welsh’s characters to a point of engrossment. We all of course know how Romeo and Juliet’s story ends, yet this production had me clawing for some impossible hope for the two young lovers.
For more information about the show and other MokitaGrit productions, see their website.