I witnessed a deeply brilliant new production of Romeo and Juliet the other night. The show, as interpreted and performed by Home, an amalgamation of the Library Theatre Company and Cornerhouse of Manchester, is unlike any I have seen before. It wasn’t just the vibrant cast, but their “stage” which volleyed their efforts above the rest.
The play took place at Victoria Baths in Manchester. Walter Meierjohann, director, has described the baths as having “a sense of faded beauty, of kitsch, of emptiness, of death.” Added to this the impressive set design by Ti Green, it is not difficult to see why this space is so perfect for Shakespeare’s most tragic love story.
Unlike a traditional theatre visit, the audience is invited to travel the journey figuratively and physically with the cast. The action takes place in three “pools” in Victoria Baths. The first was in the intricately mosaiced Ladies Pool, lined with old fashioned, curtained changing closets. Petra-Jane Tauscher, Dramaturg, tells us how the building influenced the edit of the play, most prominently the opening chorus scene between the Montagues and the Capulets.
“We were inspired by the two sides of cubicles in the Ladies Pool to make the opening a chorus scene between the Capulets and Montagues, rather than a dialogue as it is written.”
The pool of course was empty of water and filled instead with some audience members, floating around a large walkway in the middle. And so the play began. We had been warned to wear comfortable shoes and warm clothing being as the building we were in had no heating. Being a sensible sort, of course, I had complied but quickly became flustered at being too warm. I soon learned however that the extra layers were a necessity, if not for the anticipated cold but for the goosebumps that gripped my flesh as the action unfolded. Being seated as I was in the upper seating area, I could only see one side of the action, as the Capulets exited their cubicles. “Do you bite your thumb at me sir?” A rejoining “No sir” from the Montagues emanated from beneath my seat. As the tension grew between the warring families, I had to choke back tears. This is what theatre should be. The pretentious, wealthy Capulets verses the ragged, streetwise Montagues inhabit a “fantasy criminal underworld in an unnamed city somewhere in post-communist Eastern Europe” says Meierjohann.
I’ll be honest, I have always found the premise of this tragic story a little far fetched. Two teenagers so deeply in love that they cannot and will not live without one another. Having known each other for a matter of days. And one of them being only 14 years of age. But any doubts were quickly brushed aside. The chemistry between Romeo and Juliet was palpable. This isn’t lust or a hormone imbalance. This is true love. Their love is not only believable, it’s necessary. Their very survival is dependent on one another from the moment that their eyes lock for the first time.
Meierjohann’s use of the space added so much to the performance. The use of a trapeze swing to portray Romeo and Juliet’s first night of marriage was breathtaking, and such a beautiful way to emulate that which has the potential to be a rather uncomfortable scene.
With Romeo on the brink of banishment and Juliet’s imminent “engagement” to Paris, the stage is transformed into Juliet’s bedchamber. This part of the play onwards allowed the audience to play a more pivotal role as we travelled with the characters. As Juliet’s lifeless body was cradled above the heads of black-clad pall bearers, the audience shuffled silently behind as if in deep mourning. In the next room we found banished Romeo alone in the dark, atop a picture of Juliet’s beaming face. His world is empty but for her. Had we been allowed to take photos, this scene would have provided the ultimate arty snap. Romeo’s black jeans and white torso, against the black and white of Juliet’s face; the black of the room almost blanketing the love that shines from Romeo for his Juliet. Learning of his lover’s ‘death’, Romeo flees, poison in hand, to her final resting place. Again the audience follows the action into a third chamber.
I will try to express in words what I saw. Even a picture could not do justice to the live spectacle. Everything was so sombre and yet so desperately enchanting. In this room, the pool was filled deeply with turquoise water, which lapped silently at the gigantic cross that lay across it. This was Juliet’s chapel. She lay peacefully in the centre of the cross, swaddled in her wedding gown. The lighting was impeccable; tea lights floated among red flowers on the water’s surface. Incense filled the room. The sobering image of Juliet lying there was so moving that again it was a struggle not to break down.
No matter how many times I see Romeo and Juliet, the inevitable end never fails to break my heart. The terrible finality, the tragic timing is all too much. If only she had woken up seconds earlier! If only teenagers in love were not such passionate creatures! If only the Montagues and Capulets were friends! If only if only if only! Seeing the eponymous heroes laying there together, both still warm but growing colder in each other’s arms, there was no stopping the tears this time.
It is difficult to comprehend that this play was written over 400 years ago and is still performed and loved to this day. Shakespeare shines a light into the future, revealing human nature as it has always been. And yet through the tragedy of the story, there is hope. Good can grow out of bad; Juliet’s love for Romeo (“My only love sprung from my only hate”); Romeo’s love for Juliet; following the tragic deaths, a truce between the two families.
I’m quite sure that the Bard would have been quite as blown away by this production as I. The use of a building such as the Victoria Baths is a stroke of genius. The building allows for an experience that can never be achieved in a theatre. I love theatres. They are beautiful buildings. But no amount of scaffolding, props or setting can detract from the fact that it is a theatre. At Victoria Baths, the audience is truly drawn into the story because we are not in a theatre; we are in the Capulet’s house; in Friar Lawrence’s chapel; in Juliet’s bedchamber; in Romeo’s banishment.
I hope to see many more productions like this one. I cried, I laughed, I got cramp. Such a magical time. Bravo Home Theatre and Victoria Baths of Manchester. You are all very brilliant and amazing.
I believe Romeo and Juliet is all sold out, but for future projects by Home Theatre, click here. Believe me, you don’t want to miss out.
*All quotes taken from the programme produced by Home Theatre, purchased on the night.
*Picture taken from homemcr.org
*Special thanks to Wikipedia.org for its unending wisdom and one link that I used