Partway through their second national tour, Merely Theatre are currently performing Romeo & Juliet in rep with Twelfth Night using their genderblind company. The cast for this particular performance ended up mostly female, with Luke Barton alongside Tamara Astor, Hannah Ellis, Emmy Rose and Ffion Jones.
Clearly with a company of this size the text has to be stripped down, with significant doubling up. I’m more often nervous about tragedies being put on in this way, as the potential confusion over doubling (or the chaos if something goes awry) can undermine the seriousness of the story and weaken the production – unlike comedies, as it would simply add to the mirth already put before you. In some ways, the jeopardy can make a comedy even more enjoyable if even the thought of a mishap enters your mind.
In spite of this, Merely Theatre’s version comes off rather well. You immediately get the sense that their natural leanings are towards comedy, as every opportunity is taken to lighten the mood – whether it’s with Paris’ awkward dancing at the ball or Mercutio’s various antics. However, it’s serious when it needs to be, often plunging the auditorium into pin-drop silences.
For me a question mark remains over Juliet doubling with Tybalt, simply because it means the two family members can never coexist and thus making Juliet’s grief over his death not ring quite true. On the other hand, it does make you think about their connection twinned with opposing emotions: Tybalt characterising hate, and Juliet love.
The fights, arranged by Robert Myles, are managed well; they give an injection of action to the piece, whilst retaining great credibility. Florence Hazard’s costume design does just enough to make each character distinguishable, making simple changes to determine who is being portrayed at a particular time.
The cast of five do a sterling job of telling this epic tale of family feuds and boundary-crossing love with far fewer bodies than most productions would expect. Consequently it does take a little while to settle and for the audience to be certain who is talking, but once it gain. Luke Barton naturally stands out as the only man in this particular show’s line-up, but also thanks to his impassioned performance as Romeo.
Two absolute highlights of the production for me are Emmy Rose and Hannah Ellis. Rose seamlessly morphs from lovestruck girl to hate-filled man in the roles of Juliet and Tybalt, though it’s as Juliet that she impresses the most. Ellis captures the charismatic presence of Mercutio that is integral to the part, playing the joker as well as the fighter – and equally her performance as Capulet is a bit of a mix of emotions, becoming extremely moving by the very end.
My verdict? A wonderful condensed version of one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, with the five-person cast bringing a fresh energy to the piece – plenty to laugh at as well as cry over.
Merely Theatre’s Romeo & Juliet runs at Greenwich Theatre until 21 April 2017. Tickets are available online or from the box office. Full details of the tour (and Twelfth Night) can be found on the official website.