The Watermill is a truly individual theatre and presents many interesting and challenging quirks for a designer. It's not a space where you can simply place a set that's been created independently without due consideration for the building's unique architecture. For this new version of Romeo and Juliet, director, Paul Hart, and I were keen to create an original and modern production, with a sense of youth and love at its heart. As music features heavily, we developed the concept of setting the action in an underground bar/music venue where the young lovers and their confidants would feel most alive and energized. The whole theatre has now been transformed into a new venue: 'Capulet's' - a theme that's introduced from the moment the audience enters, their hands stamped with the bar's logo, before taking a stool at the Capulet's bar.
Setting the play in an underground bar also creates a tomb-like quality: the stage on which the lovers perform opens up to act as their grave, constantly reminding us of the close proximity between life and death. We also wanted to create an atmosphere where the threat of violence is always a possibility, with alcohol constantly visible and available as fuel for anarchy and graffiti on the walls hinting at bubbling social unrest.
Choosing to set the play in the round created yet another challenge and we felt this configuration would be crucial in creating a sense of intimacy, as well as heightening the audiences' awareness of the cyclical nature of events within the play. We liked the idea of the audience being exposed, to a degree, as it raises questions about how complicit they might be in the action. I didn't want to create something very neat which would be easy for the actors to navigate: instead they skirt audience members, climb a triangular truss and scale a suspended metal cross, bringing the action as close as possible and creating an element of danger.
I knew that lighting would be integral to our piece, not only because of the play's constant references to light and dark, but also to help us define locations in what might otherwise be a static bar setting. The lighting designer, Tom White, and I worked closely together to explore interesting ways of shifting between locations using practical lighting that might be present in a bar. I looked at images of neon crosses that might be at home in a quirky music venue but would also work to create the Friar's domain when lit; light boxes that could create celestial stained glass windows; and bulk heads that, when brought in to play, would be more suggestive of an exterior setting.
With Romeo and Juliet, I've thoroughly enjoyed creating something site-specific, exploring and blurring the boundaries between what already exists in the space and what has been created especially for our show. See you at Capulet's soon?
By Katie Lias
Romeo and Juliet runs at The Watermill, Newbury until 2 April.
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