Transporting Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet from sixteenth century Verona to twenty-first century London, Shakespeare Up Close has modernised this great romantic tragedy to make it enjoyable and accessible to young audiences at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond. Here, Romeo’s Montague clan are greengrocers – hard-working old-timers in the neighbourhood – whilst Juliet’s Capulet kin are estate agents – swanky business types keen to rid the area of smaller businesses, like the Montague grocers, in order to gentrify the town. Using postcode tension and gentrification as a friction that young audiences can identify with, Shakespeare Up Close welcomes us into a production that is initially accompanied by synthetic sounds to replicate the world outside the theatre: sirens, car engines and the lulling boom of a beat from a nearby club.
Keeping her production an authentic and educational experience of Shakespeare, director Gemma Fairlie has honoured the original text and her cast do a fine job of delivering it – the Montagues with a cockney London twang and the Capulets with a posh, drawling “oh yah” thrown in between lines. Carla Goodman’s costume design of tracksuits, trainers and caps for the Montagues and suave jacket and jean combos for the Capulets helps to further this image of the two parties coming from diverse backgrounds.
The hugely physical nature of this piece is a subtle but brilliant way for the actors to guide their young audience through the story, not least of all through the humour, when there is so much potential for the language to lose its listener. The daring, well-executed fight scenes, and moments where the Montagues practically dance out the meaning of their words, make the production a visual spectacle. Romeo’s (John Leader) passionate leap up to Juliet’s (Tanya Lattul) fairy-lit balcony, and the romantic entanglement of Romeo and Juliet told through movement like a modern day hip-hop film, all contribute to the company succeeding in their aim to make this production relatable to their audience. Whilst the script may portray an alien concept of courting, physical moments like these convey the intensity and passion of the relationship between the play’s two protagonists.
The in-the-round staging lends itself well to the party scene where Romeo and Juliet meet. In this scene, the staging transforms us into the spectators of a dance-off, clapping our support as the dancers hurl themselves around the LED stools. Incidentally, these four gleaming cubes – credit to TJ Chappell’s lighting design – are a focal point of the set: beaming like multi-coloured disco balls in the party scene, and glowing stark white as they form the lovers’ bedposts in a clear expression of the purity of their love.
With a cast of just six performers, all are required to play multiple roles and negotiate some tricky scene changes. Particularly impressive is Lattul spinning out of a scene as love-struck Juliet to give a monologue as the enraged Tybalt, before whirling back into her former role. As a whole, Leader stole our hearts with his articulate, expressive and inclusive Romeo, who hunkers down with us and makes us laugh as Juliet pines for him from her balcony. More emotion could be shown, however, on his learning about the death of Mercutio (Tony Hasnath). Leader’s reaction seems slightly too controlled and a more lengthy, human outburst would make this moment more moving. Maria Gray gives a stunning performance as Juliet’s nurse; her facial expressions convey her every thought in between her lines and we chuckle as she saucily props her feet up in Juliet’s lap, holding her charge in suspense as to news from Romeo. Hasnath is authentic and thorough in his portrayals of Mercutio and Paris, both of whom he makes three-dimensional.
This young and slightly thin-on-the-ground company have pulled out every effort to successfully adapt and communicate one of Shakespeare’s best-loved plays.
Romeo and Juliet is playing at the Orange Tree Theatre until 20 February. For more information and tickets, see the Orange Tree Theatre. Photo: Robert Day