Karl Marx famously said ‘religion is the opium of the people’ however, he was wrong. For many people, there is one thing more important that religion and that is football. The beautiful game can divide families, communities and even countries. In extreme cases, supporters of one team in a town may never speak to or even acknowledge supporters of the local rival team. This sporting tension is the backdrop used for Victor Harvey Productions new version of Romeo & Juliet at the Union Theatre.
In fair Verona, there are two football teams, Montague and Capulet and in each, there is a young player working his way into the world of football. In Montague, there is Romeo Abram Rooney), while in Capulet, young Juliet (Sam Perry) is the rising star. The two of them meet when Benvolio (Celeste De Veazey), Mercutio (Jack J Fairley) and Romeo sneak into a pub where the Montagues are watching a match. As the game goes on, Romeo and Juliet’s eyes meet and the two of them fall in love.
Taking one of Shakespeare’s best-known tragedies and not only moving it to the twenty-first century, but setting it among rival football teams and, as a final twist introducing the concept of gay professional footballers being the famous ‘star-crossed lovers’ may seem like a step too far but, surprisingly it works and works really well. The skillful adaptation by Joe M Mackenzie really shows up from the start with the unrequited love between Romeo and Rosaline (Anthony Fagan) being portrayed as a young man making a move on his straight friend which is instantly rebuffed – something I think will resonate with most gay men watching. That was the point in the play when I sat back relaxed realising that it was going to work. There have been some changes to the story – gender pronouns for a start – but on the whole, the majority of the text was there. One thing that did interest me was why Juliet’s age was changed from 13 to 17. It seemed a strange thing to do and was something that was discussed during the interval. Director Andy Bewley has created a traverse stage with the audience on either side. Personally, I think a trick was missed there and would have labeled the seating as the Montague and Capulet Stands. Since there is unallocated seating, it could have been an interesting experiment to see where people sat. The stage itself was a grass pitch with the rival teams in their appropriate team specific clothing – by Jenny Anderton – facing each other. And there is football. Both Sam and Abram demonstrate some really good footballing skills throughout and often the skills show added depth to the feelings of character at that point. Other little touches I really enjoyed were making Paris (Allegra Marland) a WAG-in-waiting, trying everything to bag herself a professional footballer and live the life that comes with that prize.
Acting-wise, I was highly impressed with everyone. I really liked the fact that Shakespeare’s wonderful words and soaring prose were delivered in a naturalistic style making the ancient language sound up to date and relevant to the scenario in which the play was set. Before moving to the leads, a quick mention for Henri Merriam as Friar Laurence and Gabrielle Nellis-Pain as Nurse. Both actors were to my mind absolutely outstanding in their roles bringing their characters – who are in reality rather anachronistic – firmly into the twenty-first century. Turning to the leads. Both Sam Perry and Abram Rooney were excellent. Sam’s Romeo is initially downhearted when rebuffed by Rosaline but there is a visible and very believable change to his personality and demeanor when he meets the fair Juliet. Abram manages to masculinise Juliet without losing any of the fair maid’s sweetness and innocence. The two of them together make a really handsome couple and I’ve no idea whether they are gay or not but it was easy to imagine these two falling in love, first-rate acting from both.
So, despite my own misgivings, this version of Romeo & Juliet really does work. Not only that but given all the publicity and speculation that is prevalent these days about potentially gay sportsmen, with rumours abounding that it is planned for a group of footballers to ‘come out’ at the same time, the play feels very apt and relevant to right now. Proof if ever it were needed that a combination of The Bard’s wonderful stories and a great cast and Director means Shakespeare’s tales will live on forever.
Review by Terry Eastham
Victor Harvey Productions in association with The Union Theatre present an extraordinary new interpretation of Shakespeare’s tragic tale.
Romeo: Thus from my lips, by thine, my sin is purged
Romeo and Juliet are two young men forging careers in the beautiful game. But in a world where football is religion, their love threatens to undermine the very foundation of family beliefs and expose the tragic hypocrisy of the world they know.
Juliet: Then have my lips the sin that they have took
This leaner adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy uses live music and physical theatre to capture the cacophony, violence and passion of a football stadium.
Directed by Andy Bewley (assistant director on Blue Heart at the Orange Tree and Creative Assistant on JCS at Regent’s Park Open Air), Romeo and Juliet will redefine how you view Shakespeare, sport, and masculinity — and no doubt leave you wanting extra time.
Romeo: Sin from thy lips?
O trespass sweetly urged!
Give me my sin again.
CAST: Sam Perry, Abram Rooney, Sam Wilson, Henri Merriam, Celeste De Veazey, Gabrielle Nellis-Pain,
Jack J Fairly, Katie Beudert, Kate Hardisty, Allegra Marland, Anthony Fagen, Sarah Barron, Steven Rodgers
Director – Andy Bewley
Dramaturg and Adaptor – Joe Mackenzie
Movement Director – Amy Warren
Composer – Laurence Morgan
Casting Director – Adam Braham
DATES 29th April – 20th May 2017