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Romeo and Juliet at Southwark Playhouse | Review

I have been told that there have been teachers who have come away from radical reinterpretations of Shakespeare plays with some disappointment, not necessarily because of the quality of the production in question, but because they may or may not have realised how much of a departure the production was from the text as it is studied in the classroom, and therefore from the curriculum and the nature of coursework and/or exams on the text. This version of Romeo & Juliet straddles a tightrope between repositioning the play in 1981 in south London and retaining the essence of the Shakespeare text.

Romeo and Juliet: Credit Tom Chaplin.
Romeo and Juliet: Credit Tom Chaplin.

It’s an engaging adaptation, with a combination of the Bard’s iambic pentameter, sometimes delivered in a manner one might expect to hear at a Royal Shakespeare Company production, and the inclusion of music from the era. Some members of the audience couldn’t help but hum along to choruses from chart music of the time as they were played (such as ‘In The Air Tonight’, by Phil Collins), and there were moments of actor-musicianship to enjoy, particularly during ‘One Step Beyond’ by Madness. A not-so-subtle reference to an off-stage character having to isolate, whilst amusing, took the show out of 1981 – while it was topical, it came across as out of place in Thatcher’s Britain, whilst in Shakespeare’s time plagues would spread through the population, forcing quarantine measures to be implemented and theatres to close.

Anyway, a relatively speedy pace is more or less maintained throughout the show: even before the performance had started, there was interaction with members of the audience – a sign, perhaps, of an increasing easiness amongst the cast and the audience to engage at close proximity in a crowded indoor space. The audience, for their part, responded in kind – a rhetorical question was answered by someone at the performance I attended with “Yes”, though it was the reply, a simple “Thank you”, that brought the house down.

It’s the kind of response that the show encourages. With five of the six actors doubling up – and the other one tripling up – characters, it becomes necessary to pay close attention to proceedings. That said, sometimes the production makes the task of distinguishing one character from another very easy – Yinka Awoni’s Friar Laurence is a parish priest with a Caribbean accent, for instance, and his Benvolio, well, isn’t. One of those interval-less productions, at approximately 105 minutes, a full range of human emotions is on display, from the raucous joy of a pub meetup or a house party to the melancholy resulting from Romeo’s (Samuel Tracy) banishment from Brixton to – somewhere that isn’t that bad, really, but it’s too much of a spoiler to reveal where he was ordered to go.

Some video and still image projections – never overdone – serve as reminders of the (re)setting, and there’s creative licence in force: I very much doubt Shakespeare came up with, “Call a f—ing ambulance!” as a response to someone being slain. Exploring the more humorous aspects of the story may have been a gamble, but for the most part, it paid off. It was tasteful, it was enjoyable, it was amusing, and it had a fresh vigour to it all. That isn’t easy to achieve with a play that has been performed as often as this one, and for so long.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

“This town is coming like a ghost town. Why must the youth fight against themselves?”

1981. Margaret Thatcher. Skinheads. Brixton. The Specials. Unemployment. Barbers. Madness. Rock Against Racism. Discos. Riots. Cabbies. The Selecter. This town is coming like a Ghost Town.

In a nation coming apart at the seams, two young people find love in adversity. But will they be strong enough to survive the age old-conflicts in their community?

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a timeless tale is set to some of the greatest sounds this country has ever created, exploring a generation of young people empowered by music and culture.

This production of Romeo and Juliet is also part of our Shakespeare for Schools project, which will see over 2,000 local young people see the production for free at special matinee performances.

Creative Team
Director Nicky Allpress
Designer Anisha Fields
Sound Designer Asaf Zohar
Lighting Designer Alex Musgrave
Video Designer Laura Salmi
Projection Photography (Brixton Riots) David Hoffman (website)
Movement Director Nadia Sohawon
Casting Director Ellie Collyer-Bristow CDG
Assistant Stage Manager Sophie Spencer

Samuel Tracy
Laura Lake Adebisi
Yinka Awoni
Joey Ellis
Amy Loughton
Fiona Skinner

Southwark Playhouse presents
Romeo & Juliet
by William Shakespeare
12 JAN – 5 FEB 2022


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