ROMEO AND JULIET by William Shakespeare
Our Lady's School, Abingdon
6-8 February 2018
In the programme notes to this superior school production of Shakespeare's play, director Dr Elizabeth Lawson recalls the impact that Romeo and Juliet had on her as a girl. Specifically, Romeo and Juliet in its film incarnation starring Leonardo DiCaprio. For her, as a teenager, Shakespeare, post-Leo, became cool. A previous generation had a similar experience with the same tragic tale of love in Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story, and it was to a gang war in contemporary New York, this time in Manhattan, that this slick production turned for its setting. The name Manhattan has syllables than scan identically to Verona, the original location of Shakespeare's story, which is a happy happenstance that preserved the rhythm of Shakespeare's lines intact.
With a cast of 53, and well over two dozen backstage members, this was not a production that did things by half. Combining Shakespeare's text with musical dance sequences gave the whole evening a lavish feel not a million miles away, in spirit at least, from the aristocratic families of 16th century northern Italy. Music was very effectively used throughout, between scenes and during the choreographed crowd set-pieces. Current dance and hip-hop tracks were the main fare, but I caught a few snatches of older pieces, including a sample of the intro to Minnie Riperton's 1975 hit 'Lovin' You'.
The play opened with a title sequence of the main characters projected on to a back screen ringed by LED lights, with each actor taking a bow as his or her character's name appeared. It was a clever device to avoid the audience scratching their heads later over who's who, when they should be concentrating on the plot.
We then went straight to the opening street brawl between the Montagues and Capulets. They squared up to each other, armed with quarterstaffs, with which they rhythmically banged the ground with deliberate menace to a musical track. A well choreographed fight sequence followed, in which quarterstaffs clashed perfectly in time together, like so many merry men, to be broken up by the NYPD. The cops were led by Prince Escalus, played by Enya Hagan, who bawled at the crowd in possibly the loudest voice of the evening. You wouldn't want a parking ticket from her. It set the flavour of the production.
With a cast of such epic numbers, it's not possible to mention all, but here are some brief reflections on a few of the principals. Ben Murray was an engaging Romeo who used a facial expression that said, 'I know this lurve thing is awkward and my mates are taking the Mick, but what the heck?' Bethan Corley's Juliet was the good girl knocked for six by Cupid's arrow, but wanting to do the right thing. Mercutio is, in my opinion, the best part in the play. He's sympathetic, gets some great lines and plenty of gags, plus the actor can head off to the bar for the second half of the play. John Gildersleeves was well cast, delivering the humour without milking it, and made a good team with Benvolio (played in appropriately laddish fashion by Freddie Lee) to rag Romeo.
Tybalt was a nasty piece of work. If this had been a Martin Scorcese film, he would have been the Joe Pesci role. I felt no regret when Romeo despatched him, so kudos to Dominic Warburton, dressed in black, who played the role. My personal favourite of the evening was Caitlin Stone's Nurse, who showed some brilliant comic timing and gave us plenty of business without going overboard. Danann Kilburn was cast as Friar Lawrence, but in this production the character was a trendy lady vicar, who wore tinted round sunglasses borrowed from Ozzy Osbourne. She also got to play with the blue LED cross on the gates to the friary. Oh, and there was also some decent acting going on in the meantime. I also liked the sartorial contrast between the heads of each feuding family. Tom Wellesley's Lord Capulet in white linen jacket over Hawaiian shirt versus Endre Bessenyei's Lord Montague in business suit.
Designing costumes for so many cast members was a Herculean task, but that didn't seem to mean any drop in quality. The Hawaiian shirts versus all-blacks theme provided a clear contrast between the two families, while keeping the gang setting in mind. The costumes at the party where our hero and heroine meet also impressed. The set was well designed with obligatory balcony that was nicely integrated into plenty of other scenes. It was dressed with New York street furniture and even a carousel (the location of Romeo and Juliet's first verbal exchange). Congratulations too to the sound crew who had to cue many dozens of music tracks, all of which appeared on the night I went, to come in on time. Well done to the lighting crew for enhancing the atmosphere through all the levels from party to funeral.
OLA's Romeo and Juliet showed that focused imagination, flair and sheer hard graft will pay off in a great theatrical experience for audience, cast and crew alike. We all had a great time.
Photo Attribution: Our Lady's Abingdon
About the Author
Mike Lord has been involved with amateur theatre for over twenty years, mainly as an actor but also, more recently, as a director.
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