Making Shakespeare Speak to the Here and Now. Romeo & Juliet, at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. ★★★★


WYP_RJ_COMP_FINAL_Header“For never was a story of more woe. Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”

I feel people become afraid when they heard the word ‘modern’ or ‘adaptation’, as if a story they know and love is going to be radically changed and somehow ruined. Shakespeare’s texts are forced into our lives from a very young age in schools, and many of us grow and learn with it, admiring his words and others can’t bear to hear, and/or don’t understand it. Each to their own. I, personally, adore the words of Shakespeare and any chance I get to see a live version of his works, I take.

Romeo and Juliet is currently on at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and will be closing this weekend, so there is not much time to get tickets. If you can, I suggest you take the opportunity to experience this modern adaptation of a classic text.

I was lucky enough to speak with the director Amy Leach (previously directed Kes, The Night Before Christmas, Little Sure Shot and many more, at the West Yorkshire Playhouse) and discuss with her the creative process and reasons behind some of the creative choices. The process behind the production was incredibly thought-out, with detailed care in making this production a collaborative process. The show involved a professional cast and a youth theatre group, working together to bring this piece of text to life. Amy’s enthusiasm for the cast and the audience, to enjoy the production was incredibly heart-warming; she wanted this modern piece to appeal to younger audiences but not exclude any other or older audiences, and I feel this production can appeal to everyone. A Shakespeare fan or not, there is something for everyone to enjoy in this production.

Amy suggested that one of the main influences for Romeo and Juliet was Brexit; a story where the older generation has control over the younger generation and the younger generation are suffering for it. This was an incredible comparison that I did not pick up on, but it completely made sense. Using a modern-day youth and system, with traditional Shakespearean language is a profound way in showing that not only is Shakespearian text timeless but a love story can be twisted into a representation of a modern political dispute.

The piece is set in Leeds and is filled with Yorkshire accents, I believe that every actor involved is from Yorkshire, Liverpool and Birmingham, and this created a working-class impression. I have only ever heard Yorkshire accents used as the maids or the soldiers in a few Shakespearean productions, therefore to see such strong leads with the Yorkshire dialect gave the text a whole new dimension. At times, I think it created a comedic effect where there perhaps shouldn’t be and caused some confusion and inappropriate laughter from the audience, but the Yorkshire accent will do that to you.

The staging of the piece is set as a concrete playground, including a swing and trees with fairy lights, creating a setting for bored, rebellious youths to ‘hang out’ in. There is also a concrete balcony for the play’s most classic scene, which was very heartfelt. Amy was able to show me some images her and her creative team looked at when discussing what they wanted to bring and show from the piece and being able to see where their inspiration came from, made the staging have more meaning for me. It really captured an interpretation of what youth is today and what they ‘do’ in society – with no youth centres or clubs, they ‘hang around’ anywhere that has free space.

The costumes were hand tailored for each actor, with their input, on how they think their character would look and dress, which is a wonderful example of creative collaboration and freedom. Having youths (teenagers/young adults) in the production definitely helped with creating a teenage chaos in a few of the scenes. Their energy was alive and gave the piece different paces; their rush contrasted well with the classic Shakespearean monologues.

The acting was very well done, I am always impressed when someone can recite Shakespeare for longer than two hours and still drive a powerful story with convincing emotion. The love story in this piece is stronger than the conflict; which I don’t think is a bad thing. Even though this play is a tragedy, I felt the tragedy was more in their death rather than the two not being able to be together. Their blossoming love was beautifully created and I almost expected a happy ending.

My favourite thing in the production and discussion with Amy was the gender swapping of the characters Mercutio and the vicar. They are usually played by males, however, in this production they are played by females. The Vicar-Friar Laurence played the role of a mother hen who is trying to help and look after all these youths and protect them, but ultimately fails and the audience can feel her desires and her pain. Mercutio’s character was portrayed as the boisterous, confident girl who hangs around with the lads, and balanced out the male/female ratio in the main cast. Her anti-romantic, joking character created a comic relief yet her acting went deep enough that her death was tragic. As an audience member, I really cared about this character and life and energy brought on stage with their presence. Mercutio’s death created sympathy for Romeo’s enraged, emotional reaction in avenging his friend’s death. This was a distinct turning point in the play, as tragedy begins to overwhelm comedy, and the fates of the protagonists are doomed.

This production is a clever, visually thought-provoking piece of theatre. Creating a space and visuals that modern, younger audiences can identify with. I am happy to see that directors are daring enough to try new and adventurous ways of displaying Shakespearean text. Of-course, the traditional way of performing Shakespeare is important for history, but it is important that our future generations want to see it and understand it.

Well done to everyone involved, you’ve done Shakespeare and Yorkshire proud.

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