Ffwrnes, Llanelli; 12th March 2017
Shakespeare’s classic tale of thwarted love is set amid a backdrop of civil unrest, which resonates disturbingly well for our time in this final part of director Yvonne Murphy’s trilogy for Omidaze. Unlike the previous productions of Richard III and Henry VI, however, Romeo & Juliet moves the overt focus from the politics themselves to the impact of living within such conditions for individuals caught up in the maelstrom.
Saz Moir‘s design concept develops the military patchworks and scaffolding towers of Henry IV (Gabriella Slade) by further populating the space with tailors’ dummies. Their presence, clothed and unclothed, utilised or remaining apart from the action, suggests all the other stories that could be told in this broiling land. Today, we just happen to be looking at one handful of the individuals affected; the titular characters becoming examples of a life in the same way our news media takes sentimental snapshots to report on wide-spread aggressions at home or abroad.
The promenade production is set, for the most part, in the backstage area of Ffwrnes, Carmarthenshire’s newly designated circus-theatre centre. We begin, however, in the foyer, where television screens play news footage of civil disobedience and violence, while a beige-clad body lightly moves above our heads; a detached, dreamlike observer to the realities of anger and strife below. Hidden speakers build a clamour of troubled voices as the chorus of actors move among us, and the Prince’s proclamation banning further violence on pain of death is delivered by Salim Sai through a protestor’s megaphone.
We are hurried backstage, where the soundscape continues, devolving into Shakespeare’s prologue that clarifies the bloody civil mess we find ourselves in. The first scene drops this energy rather jarringly, but we find our way back to it in places as Murphy’s 100 minute adaptation goes on. Tic Ashfield‘s electronic soundtrack swoops in and out like disturbed whale-song adding to the frisson of the play, reinforcing some very fine acting from the multi-role playing cast of six.
Connor Allen is especially impressive as an eager young Romeo who engages equally naturally with his fellow cast-members and members of the audience as we are drawn into speeches or directed around the space. Aamira Challenger’s Juliet is also superb, filled with impetuous teenage desire after absorbing her mother’s suggestion that she is old enough to be married. Sai doubles up as a jovially dangerous Lord Capulet, and Hannah O’Leary plays his aloof wife, masking painful emotions with decorum and etiquette.
O’Leary* also doubles as Friar Lawrence and Montague cousin Benvolio. Each of her characters, in addition to the identifying costume pieces that the ensemble don and discard throughout the play, is marked by a particular piece of aerial equipment that can be seen to reflect elements of the roles: Lady Capulet is draped in flowing blue silks, Friar Lawrence works a vertical rope that could be a bell pull, and Benvolio is circled by a hoop that matches that of comrade Mercutio (Gemma Creasey). Creasey also performs the role of straight-laced suitor Paris on a pair of low slung straps that act mostly as foot-stirrups.
The ability to maintain a flow of Shakespearean text whilst simultaneously flowing through a steadily shifting aerial choreography is impressive, and reflects movement director Paul Evans‘ ongoing explorations of vocal circus as well as voice coach Jacquie Crago’s expertise. It doesn’t always work though. Particularly in the exchanges on aerial hoops, the textual rhythm often seems to follow the pattern of the movement, disconnected from emotions (elsewhere, by contrast, drops and transitions seem driven by the underlying motivations of the characters, informing both the movement and the speech). There is a reliance on verbal understanding during these sequences that seems at odds with the show’s marketing to ages 7+, and even my 36 year-old partner found himself turning to the accessibility surtitles screen for clarity of the text when other clues of sound and vision failed to communicate meaning.
I can recognise that these aerial devices produce a Brechtian distancing effect, stylistically fitting with the visible costume changes and direct acknowledgement of the audience. What I find irritating, however, is there seems to be no internal logic to why some characters go up in the air and others don’t. Could it be simply that Creasy and O’Leary are the only ones with the suitable skills and these are the parts they happen to be playing? Or is there an obliquely hidden reasoning that would have enhanced my understanding of the play if I had grasped it?
The research being done by the company into incorporation of text and circus technique is important and rare, however the usage doesn’t feel fully integrated into this staging of what becomes, nonetheless, a strong telling of the Romeo & Juliet tragedy.
Joe Fletcher‘s lighting design is poetically cinematic, and the production shoots down any who would query the effectiveness of colour or gender-blind casting in classical plays, seamlessly merging traditional expectations with 21st Century realities. Kayed Mohamed-Mason’s Nurse is played with dignity and sensitivity, and crass cross-playing stereotypes are wisely avoided across the range of characters.
Romeo & Juliet has been a co-production with Wales Millennium Centre (who will be hosting the final phase of its short tour) and has an associated programme of schools’ workshops that explore the connections between power, politics and Shakespeare, with a focus on UK and Welsh parliamentary systems as well as an introduction to the play.
Whilst it’s not a perfect production, it’s an important one in this era of increasingly divided societies, revealing the devastating human consequences of stoked rages and grudge-fueled bitterness.
* Full disclosure: Hannah and I attended drama school together 10 years ago. *