You don’t go to see a production of Romeo and Juliet to see what happens. Shakespeare and – over 400 years later – Baz Luhrmann have done a good job of drumming the romantic tragedy into our consciousness. To breathe any new life into the story of love so strong that death is preferable to separation is no mean feat, yet Iris Theatre with its outdoor showing of R&J recently did just that.
Iris Theatre’s first achievement was to repeat their 2009 idea of setting the action on the grounds of St Paul’s (aka The Actors Church) in Covent Garden. We trooped around the grounds and for the final scene were beckoned into the church itself. What more atmospheric setting could there be to watch two star-crossed lovers take their lives?
The second thing which commanded attention was the passion and technical skill shown by the entire cast. Performing outdoors means you have to battle a lot of noises, yet Shakespeare’s lines rang out clearly – even when a troupe of Hari Krishnas passed by on the piazza, chanting and banging their tambourines.
A third masterstroke was the modernisation at play. Luhrmann might have had the idea first but he decked his characters out in stylised Americana; all cars, guns and Hollywood beauty. Iris Theatre gave it more of a grimy East London feel: the Montagues flew around in check shirts with pork pie hats and Mercutio wore skinny jeans that could have been shoehorned off Russell Brand. IT dispensed with the guns and took it back to basics with knife fights so well-choreographed that I felt the bard’s vision of violence before mine eyes.
There were a few modern additions to the otherwise loyally followed script. When Romeo skips out on his friends, hell-bent on finding Juliet after the big Capulet party, his friends look for him and one of them – after throwing a beer bottle – shouts, drunkenly, ‘I love you!’ IT couldn’t have chosen a better touch. Since binge-drinking became our national sport, pissed affection has become a rite of passage.
But then, maybe it always was. As I watched Juliet joking around with her best mate the nurse and rebelling against her parents, as I nodded while Romeo ignored the advice of his outgoing friend Mercutio and paid over the odds for some drugs from a dodgy-looking Apothecary, I thought maybe not much has changed since the 16th century when Shakespeare wrote this story.
And that is the main skill of Iris Theatre. In an innovative and entertaining style, they have highlighted the understated comic themes – as well as the over-riding dramatic ones – and shown that Romeo and Juliet is a thoroughly modern play.
Romeo and Juliet took place at:
St. Paul’s Church