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“Are you a Montague or a Capulet? It’s time to choose sides.” Safe to say, I am extremely excited about Creation Theatre’s Romeo & Juliet. I adore the ‘choose your own adventure’ genre, and have seen it blossom into extraordinary creations within video games; even Netflix’s seminal Bandersnatch attempts it. I cannot wait to see how it plays out within a theatrical medium, and I eagerly choose ‘Capulet’; I am desperate to save Juliet from the claws of fate.
The first half of the performance takes place on Zoom, an interesting choice: it is warming to see other audience members, something denied from us in digital theatre; but the audio-visual quality is shaky, and this coupled with the neon, bright aesthetic that accompanies most of the play serves to make the experience disorienting. The play from the outset strikes me as kaleidoscopic, and I enjoy the juxtaposition of such an aesthetic alongside the original Shakespearean text, but it tires rather quickly. I am confused and often I do not know where to look, especially in scenes with several actors who are all in different colours and framed from different perspectives.
The superb acting makes up for my initial disorientation, with the cast including some of the UK’s leading Shakespearean actors; Katy Stephens as Nurse is hilarious and engaging, and Dharmesh Patel as Mercutio is energetic and wild – they are both a joy to watch. These excellent, fully realised characters serve to create a feeling of continuity as the audience leave Zoom calls, enter new ones, and finally switch to a pre-recorded video for the second half. Whilst in theory it is exciting that this show is Creation Theatre’s first production that “operates across a multitude of technologies”, in practice I find that it creates rather clunky breaks in between scenes. I find myself pulled from the world they have tried so hard to immerse me into.
The choice-focused section of the play begins with the second half and my excitement is palpable. Ultimately, however, I feel disappointed. The mechanics are slick; we choose between two cards and click the one we want, which takes us to a specific video. However, I cannot help but feel as though the whole premise hinges upon detailed knowledge of the original play. I myself am only aware of the basic plot, and because of this I have no idea whether the choices I make are deviating from the original with its many scenes and monologues. I do not understand what difference I am making to the story, and it comes across as rather inaccessible. I leave the production with the feeling that to fully comprehend the new features and scenes I unlock throughout the production, I am required to have a more intimate knowledge of the play than I do.
We are promised “one hundred possible variations” alongside a play that is “influenced by [our] choices”. My experience does not reflect this, and I think that Creation Theatre could reverse it by showing us a visible mapping out of the different choices and their outcomes (as plenty of choice-based video games do). In this way, the audience can see the tangible effects they make and understand the outcome.
Ultimately, I enjoy watching Romeo & Juliet, but I come away a little deflated at what I feel is an unfulfilled promise of an audience-centred, choice-based play. The premise is exciting and the acting is wonderful, but I think some work is needed in order to fulfil its aim.
Romeo & Juliet is available online until 23 May 2021. For more information and tickets, see Creation Theatre’s website.