The ethos of The Faction theatre company is to innovate and reinvigorate classics, inflating the old and tired with a new and stimulating lease of life. If that’s your ethos then what bigger challenge is there than to take on the nation’s most known, most familiar and most quotable text and make it into something shiny and newly empathetic? There are plenty of things to play on and Shakespeare has shown his longevity thousands of times over, but his legacy often gets weighed down by Chinese-whispered reputation. Is Romeo and Juliet the greatest love story that ever there was? Or is it a reflection of the all-too-familiar whim of teenage romance, set amongst the prevailing struggle to find yourself in a world where everything seems to be against you, where your anguish and belief systems are preset? Talking of preset, how do The Faction dash a knowledgeable audience’s preconceptions and make them feel the whole thing, whole-heartedly, all over again? Well, The Faction are known for ensemble work: pulling on every single word from every single angle and doing it together. They are unlimited and unbound by not solely telling a story of Juliet and her Romeo, but of community, of grudges, of the fragile insignificance of life and the flippancy of its end. The company carry this out through a multitude of strands.
They tackle the not insignificant task of re-characterising the iconic. Romeo, played by Christopher York, brims with a cheeky Northern charm while Juliet is a grungy, American teen. Both portray the equal innocence and petulance of youth, building a greater sense of loss ultimately: the loss of potential and future caused by a futile feud. The nurse is portrayed, pretty perfectly, by Kate Sawyer: a rough diamond, a tracksuited cockney with fingers over-ringed, she is feisty and caring in equal measure. Sawyer contrasts the jovial with raw emotion in a tinglingly good performance. Christopher Tester’s Tybalt is controlled and squirmingly dislikeable, while his Friar Laurence is empathetically clear though a little Postlethwaite-esque for my liking. The Faction’s Mercutio, Tom Brownlee, is sharply funny and enigmatically camp. Brownlee made me giggle enough to bring my emotions right to the surface and hope with all my heart that Mercutio would survive – perhaps this time he’d make it.
As a space, the New Diorama is somewhat intimate, and the audience feels automatically part of the Verona community, My “front row every show” motto wavered in its bolshiness as copper pipes and biceps were a little too close for comfort during the fight scenes. But that’s precisely the atmosphere that The Faction are plunging for: we are part of their ensemble from the offset as we enter the auditorium to the company’s vocal warm-ups, semi-supine stretches and banter. They use this space expertly, using rostra as set, pushing and pulling them around the stage to create levels and hiding places. The cast remain on stage throughout, changing and multi-roling before our eyes, involving us in the whole process without once detracting from the tragedy at hand, interweaving elements of movement, multimedia and even song as they go – a feat that can often lead to messiness, though not in this case. Having said that, singing a segment of the story to the tune of ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ didn’t sit well with me.
My preconception was that Romeo and Juliet has been done, so what about the new plays, new writers and forgotten texts? But The Faction proved me wrong: a re-imagining can be just as rewarding as the new, and our theatrical reputation as a nation is built on stories like this and, more so, how they are told.
Romeo and Juliet is playing at the New Diorama Theatre until 28 February. For more information and tickets, see the New Diorama Theatre website. Photo by Richard Davenport.