“Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene…”
Or, in this case, a modern day refugee camp. Shakespeare’s timeless tale of two star-crossed lovers has been adapted by Wolf-Sister Productions into a 90-minute play set in an environment that is all too familiar thanks to news headlines of recent times.
For those who are unaware of the story, it focuses on the ancient grudge between the Montagues & the Capulets – the children of the families meet by chance and fall in love. They marry in secret with the help of Friar Laurence, who hopes that the union might end up calling a truce and bring peace to the city. However, the bloodshed doesn’t stop and events quickly spiral out of control, culminating in tragedy for the young couple.
By setting the production in such a recognisable situation it allows the audience to relate to the universal themes in the play. It also makes the urgency of the couple’s actions so much more understandable; if your very existence is filled with uncertainty it’s bound to increase the intensity with which you go about your life.
The Rose is a perfect location for this particular production, as the archaeological site can be used to create the refugee camp – with the main performance area utilised most of all. The cold of the outdoors also adds to the authenticity and atmosphere of the piece. The scene is set as soon as you enter the theatre itself, with colour-coded blankets (red for Montague, blue for Capulet) and the sound of news reports about Syrian refugees. It does run fairly smoothly for the most part, though several scene transitions are a little time-consuming – perhaps these could be covered up by using the background space, or a bit of music & blackouts.
Romeo and Juliet is obviously a tragedy, but that doesn’t preclude the finding of humour within the text. It’s particularly marked early on, getting darker as events become more serious. There is also some inspired doubling to make the small cast go further.
Niall Ransome brings a devilish humour to Mercutio, one of my favourite characters in Shakespeare’s entire canon. His interactions with Juliet’s nurse (Elizabeth McNally) are especially hilarious, as is his delivery of Mercutio’s “Oh, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you” speech before the Capulet gathering.
James G Nunn and Rhiannon Sommers are a Romeo and Juliet for our times. Less innocent sweethearts, more confident young lovers. Whether it’s Juliet swigging on her hip flask, or Romeo hiding in the audience, Sommers and Nunn give very relatable portrayals of two young people who have immediately taken a liking to each other. The love story at the centre of the play has the potential to be quite saccharine, but there is none of that in this production. It has a very modern and believable feel to it.
My verdict? A production that tells a classic story in a new and bold fashion, whilst highlighting the ongoing refugee crisis – surprisingly funny, with touching and striking performances.
Romeo & Juliet runs at the Rose Playhouse until 10 December 2016. Tickets are available online and from the box office.