Romeo and Juliet (tour – Ipswich)
As an introduction to Shakespeare, "Romeo & Juliet" is a syllabus staple. Custom/Practice take an unusual approach.
The timeless nature of "a pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life" story means that there have been many productions like Baz Luhrmann's film or interpretations such as West Side Story that have set the play in modern settings. This production sets the play in a kind of modern setting but has introduced street dance.
Custom/Practice's aim is to challenge theatre by widening access for actors and audiences from a variety of backgrounds; this can be seen by the diversity of the accomplished cast.
There is also a lot of talent as part of the creative team, which includes Kenrick Sandy and Michael Asante (part of Danny Boyle's creative team that devised the opening performances of the 2012 London Olympics).
The initial opening is a jolt to the system as we see the cast perform modern street dance. The use of this does awaken and enliven the text in ways I have not felt before. It is is also quite potent in the knife fights between the Montagus and the Capulets.
Later on in the play, when Romeo and Juliet first meet, the choreography is brilliant. However, at other points, the use of dance annoys and detracts from the text and I found this especially so in Arun Blair-Mangat's performance as Romeo as he jiggled his arms.
It is also refreshing to see – and most probably reflects urban metropolitan Britain that the Montagus and Capulets are not segregated down racial lines. It was a relief that the majority of the cast deliver their lines in a clear accent without any "street" inflexions. Although I found it strange that Naomi Heffernan as Lady Capulet adopts an Irish accent.
Heffernan's casting also jars a bit, as she seems to be more like Remmie Milner's sister in appearance, but as the text mentions, Lady Capulet would be in her late 20s while Juliet is only 14. Much of the supporting cast is excellent. Sam Patrick's Friar Laurence is a delight and Michelle Cornelius in her role as the Nurse gives an accomplished performance.
There is also some strong lighting and set design in this performance. A fairly bare stage with a vine adorned-trellis from which Juliet's balcony hangs is enhanced with subtle appropriate lighting and sound-track.
Mabyn Aita's costume designs must also be congratulated as they give a sense of timelessness to the performance. It is neither contemporary nor Shakespearean, and the long flowing dresses of Juliet and Lady Capulet enhanced their form while dancing.
This is a hard performance to comment on. The second half of the performance seems to lose its pace and while it is brave to provoke debate by challenging Shakespeare through street dance, at times it seems a distraction from what are otherwise some very strong performances.
Romeo and Juliet tours nationally to 27 October.