Romeo and Juliet preview: ‘genuinely innovative’

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‘Why the hell would two young people who have only known each other for three days want to kill themselves because they don’t have each other? Something in their world must be so bad and so wrong that without each other there’s just no point.’

This is the thought process informing Phoenix Theatre Company’s upcoming production of Romeo and Juliet, set in a Mad Max-style post-apocalyptic wasteland. Having directed 1TC’s After the End by Denis Kelly earlier this year, Kitty Briggs seems to be embracing her reputation for dark, depressing, end-of-the-world plays. With her interpretation of Shakespeare’s beloved tragedy, she promises an entirely new take on a classic.

The eponymous lovers are members of warring tribes, in a brutal regime ruled by the menacing Prince. The Capulets are all women, under the control of a group of elite men. The narrative hasn’t changed, but playing around with gender in this way has allowed Briggs and Assistant Director Katie Sawyer to emphasise different elements in a genuinely innovative way.

Layla Chowdhury, who plays Juliet, is adamant that ‘we’re not just modernising Shakespeare for the sake of modernising it. By putting it in a post-apocalyptic world you’re putting it in a setting that is slightly more understandable and relatable than ye olde times, but one that still works.’ The whole cast are in agreement. As choreographer puts it, ‘there’s nothing jarring at all. It’s never style over substance. It means a lot to the story.’

(Romeo) stresses the high-stakes nature of the story. ‘Banishment is death, literally, because everywhere else is a wasteland. This is the only place where you can really survive, and also, it’s where Juliet is.’

Gender-switching has brought some interesting dynamics into play, particularly with characters like Capulet and Tybalt, played, as women, by Flo Petrie and Angharad Phillips. Their motivations have become, in some ways, more straightforward. ‘In this world,’ Phillips tells me, ‘you know why Tybalt’s so angry. The women are all subordinated, so of course she’s going to want to fight these men.’

One of the most important and novel aspects of this production is the integration of contemporary dance sequences by choreographer . She has designed these scenes to be ‘communicative’ above all, integral to the storytelling. ‘I was really interested in how dance can be integrated into straight theatre in a very unpretentious way. We commonly see dance only associated with musical theatre, we don’t really see it interwoven into the more stock plays in Durham.’ Her focus has been on characterisation, as dance experience is mixed among the cast. Inspired by the movement in last term’s production of Constellations, Gaunt says she’s been ‘blown away’ by the efforts of the actors.

Sawyer elaborates further: ‘Romeo and Juliet have four scenes together. They meet, they marry, they have sex, they die. That’s not a great relationship. If you can show that they do actually meet each other and have moments in movement instead, then you might actually care when they die.’ Married to some explosive fight choreography by Briggs and Victor So (Benvolio), dance promises to add an element of visceral physicality perfectly suited to the brutality of the setting.

A soundtrack of ‘dirty electronica’ will help to set the tone, along with a unified monochrome aesthetic and individual make-up looks designed by Briggs. She feels that ‘makeup is really underused in DST,’ and intends to use it to its full potential. ‘We’re really pushing that whole tribal thing.’

Zac Tiplady, who plays Mercutio, stresses that ‘it’s a show that looks good, and has great personality.’ There’s plenty of humour lightening the early scenes, particularly in Tiplady and So’s interactions, though Briggs promises me that things will only get darker. At its heart, this is a reading of Romeo and Juliet that seeks to understand what might drive two people to kill themselves for love. In the hopeless, oppressive world Briggs has created, the credibility of this almost worn-out story is renewed. Not a cheerful distraction from impending exams, then, but an endlessly fascinating question nonetheless.

Modernising Shakespeare comes with plenty of risks. As (Lady Capulet) remarks, ‘there’s always something that just doesn’t quite work. But I haven’t found that with this production. It just makes sense.’ From what I’ve seen, the risk has paid off, and PTC’s production will be a fresh, visceral re-imagining of one of the Bard’s best.

‘Romeo and Juliet’ will be performed at the Assembly Rooms Theatre from Thursday, 11th May to Saturday 13th May at 19:30. Book your tickets here.

Photograph: Julia Ryng

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