Romeo + Juliet come HOME to Manchester

© Jessica Tremp

The greatest love story ever told is coming to the north-west of England in a site-specific performance the world has never seen, and I’ve had a sneak-peek.

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Courtesy of HOME MCR

This week I had the delight of attending a press preview at Manchester’s historic Victoria Baths, the site of HOME‘s upcoming and sold out production of Romeo & Juliet. From what I glimpsed it promises to be nothing less than extraordinary: a unique promenade-style staging across three atmospheric Victorian swimming pools (one of which will be filled especially for the production) transformed into a world where family loyalties, pride, faith and passion result in bitter tragedy.We met with the cast, watched a scene in rehearsal, and took a tour of the epic and impressive work being undertaken to transform Victoria Baths into fair Verona, where we lay our scene. Except Verona it is not. In this production the drama is retold as a contemporary fairytale set in a criminal underworld of Eastern Europe and inspired by its stories, music, and film.During this peek behind-the-scenes I got to thinking about how old stories are made new again by their retellings, how they can still possess the power to captivate and draw us into their flame, though we very well know their light.

Romeo and Juliet was written in 1597. For over four hundred years we have known the fate of the young, star-crossed lovers. We have known the conflict, the madness, the love, and their heart-breaking doom. This tale has run through the fabric of our lives, wrapped around us in art, literature, and mass media for generations. It is embedded in our collective subconscious. And yet. From the five and a half thousand tickets sold out to see HOME’s promenade production of Romeo & Juliet, it’s clear we are still hooked, reeled in by the lure of this old story, remade.

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Walter Meierjohann chatted about his vision for remaking this classic story and the inspiration behind his retelling, which marks his HOME directorial debut: as a student in the 90s, Meierjohann stayed in a derelict hostel in Poland to meet up with his girlfriend who was living in Vienna at the time. Outside of the hostel he noticed a large cluster of Mercedes. He soon learned two feuding clans were in residence to make peace. During that night Meierjohann was woken by screaming and shouting. A son of one clan had run away with a daughter from the other. Watching fifty Mercedes hurtle into the darkness chasing a young couple driving through the night in Poland was an experience that has stayed with him; Meierjohann has always loved Romeo & Juliet.

Initially I was thinking urban and gritty with hoodies and gangs, until I walked into Victoria Baths. It hit me. I knew, this is the place. I was so drawn to its faded beauty. There’s a lot about memory in this space. A sense of loss and emptiness. Youth. Love. Hatred. I was keen to explore these senses, framed by this faded beauty. I was particularly inspired by the changing cubicles in the ladies pool. I walked in and thought, bang. Montagues on one side, Capulets on the other. There’s a connectivity here on many levels, including a dialogue with Manchester.
– Walter Meierjohann

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We sat in on the rehearsal of the Capulet party scene.
“Action,” calls Meierjohann.
The pool-cum-theatre is suddenly thumping with music, colour, and energy – not a classical pan flute to be seen or heard. This is a glittering assault of the senses. Alive with the music of Gypsy bands and Balkan choirs, the original score written by Nikola Kodjabashia immerses the audience in the foot-stomping, colourful, energetic debauchery of the characters. Audience engagement has been carefully considered in this production.

We don’t want the audience to feel overwhelmed by Shakespeare and are open about how hard it is to understand. We want to celebrate the story of the play in this unusual place.
– Petra Jane Tauscher, dramaturge

Just as I was ready to leap over the barricade and become part of the action the world seemed to come to a feather-collared, Nirvana-black stop.

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After rehearsal we met with lead actors Alex Felton and Sarah Vickers to chat about their experiences embodying the immortal characters, ‘getting’ Shakespeare, and being found by the play, rather than vice versa.

This production has been so intuitive and such an immersive experience. It’s a mirrored expression of what love is, really. Everything’s happened on the floor.
– Alex Felton

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I haven’t played Juliet before. I was preparing my audition piece when I finally got it. All the clichés about Shakespeare build up in your head – and then you finally get it. Juliet found me, in a way.
– Sarah Vickers

Sitting in the Turkish Bath Suite it struck me how evocative the stories behind the story of this production are, practically worthy of performance themselves.

Victoria Baths achieved nationwide prominence when it won the BBC’s Restoration programme in 2003, and is regarded as one of Manchester’s most beloved historical treasures. Its stained glass scenes throughout, full of herons, swallows, mountains, castles, lilies and of course the butterfly girl – its luscious green-tiled walls -perhaps most bewitchingly its light, shimmery, watery, golden and green – its decay and shambolic whispers of a century of stories passed – the Baths takes possession of this unique promenade production of Romeo & Juliet. It is a character in the story itself, lending its watery quality and weight of memory to this tragic tale of love and longing.

Gala Pool, 1906 - © Victoria Baths.
Gala Pool, 1906 – © Victoria Baths.
Mixed bathing, 1914 - © Victoria Baths.
Mixed bathing, 1914 – © Victoria Baths.
Turkish Rest Room, 1906 - © Victoria Baths
Turkish Rest Room, 1906 – © Victoria Baths

For the five years I’ve spent a considerable part of my life calling Manchester home I haven’t been as excited about a theatre event as I am to see Romeo & Juliet. The northern summer is dwindling here and as I find myself fighting off melancholy, scrambling to cling to the last of the green and the glow, I turn my face eagerly towards this beguiling retelling and thrilling remaking of an old story.

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The lily butterfly girl, Turkish Bath Suite, Victoria Baths, Manchester.

Romeo & Juliet is the second of HOME’s site-specific productions taking place around Manchester in the lead-up to the opening of their £25m centre for theatre, film, and art in spring 2015.

My date with the star-crossed lovers is on the seventeenth of September. Expect more gushing then.

All images in this post are my own unless otherwise credited.

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