On Wednesday night I returned with feverish excitement to the faded and intoxicating beauty of Manchester’s Victoria Baths to see HOME’s site-specific and sold out production of Romeo & Juliet.
Following my sneak-peek of rehearsals, I had been crossing the days off my calendar waiting for showtime to arrive, nearly drooling every time I caught another tidbit of besotted and rapturous feedback from audiences and critics online. It seemed I was not alone in my pre-show swooning – when I walked into the Baths I noticed other audience members milling about were wearing the same look of flushed anticipation. That we expected the performance to be visually satiating was ensured by the green-tiled, stained-glass, fading beauty of the Baths. That the story would be evocative and heartbreaking was a given; we all know the fate of the lovers we had come to see. But I think what few of us were ready for was the role we, the audience, would play in the production. Or, how our physical immersion in artistic director Walter Meierjohann’s cinematic reimagining of this tragic tale would give us the gift of one of the most unique theatre experiences we’re ever likely to have.
Most of the play is performed in the ladies’ pool around which the audience is seated and, in my case, standing. For those of us with standing tickets, the story quite literally happened amongst us. Before the performance begins, we are ushered into the pool, down the steps into the the water-less, cavernous space, to look up and observe. On either side of the pool the old change cubicles with their flaking paint and candy-striped curtains become the houses of the feuding Montagues and Capulets. Between them a custom-made platform bridges the pool and serves as centre stage. Later it is hydraulically raised to create a mirrored ballroom for the magical Capulet party, the scene of Romeo and Juliet’s meeting, and then, later again, it becomes Juliet’s bedroom. This is an effective, innovative, and genius use of space, in which the standing audience is unavoidably present.
Around us, characters enter and exit the pool-cum-stage, whisking past, brushing our skin, side-stepping our bodies. I sense their physical presence before I see them on stage. I feel the vibrations of Romeo, Mercutio, and Benvolio’s pounding footsteps in the soles of my feet before I see them coming. I smell Lady Capulet’s perfume and hairspray before I see her animal print robes and lacquered quiff appear. I hear the rustle of Juliet’s dress behind me, before I see her in white stage light. By the time the Capulet mask party happens, when the gypsy music is thumping, the air is charged, and centre stage is a hedonistic flurry of colours, feathers, and sequins, I’ve forgotten reality entirely. I’m there, amongst it, witnessing the beautiful, doomed meeting of the two young lovers. I’m swept up and away completely. Pass me the poison; my fate is sealed along with theirs.
Meierjohann’s retelling of Romeo & Juliet is one that I wish had been my introduction to Shakespeare. Set in Eastern Europe, Romeo is an aspiring musician, and though we don’t know his age specifically, Alex Felton brilliantly portrays a relatable, contemporary, charismatic, pensive teenager with an abundance of swagger. His partners in crime, Benvolio and Mercutio are of the same ilk (and acted superbly by Lewis Goody and Ncuti Gatwa respectively). You can almost smell the hormones.
Romeo is so desperate to be in love, desperate to live life fully on his own terms, and seemingly so unaware of his own capacity for delight, and violence, that we forget he is on the brink of being a man – until we realise how unaware he is of his own strengths and weaknesses. When Romeo is at a loss for words to express how he’s feeling for Juliet, for instance, he lapses into an awkward adolescent serenade, mashing-up the Beatles, Backstreet Boys, and Beyonce, to clever and highly amusing effect.
By contrast, later when Romeo beats Tybalt to death in a violent rage, a dark and stunned silence fills the audience. Where has the larrikin gone? Similarly Juliet, embodied by Sara Vickers, possesses the desire and frustration of a child on the cusp of teenage-hood, her desperation to escape parental expectation in harsh conflict with her wild spirit. Though she has a confidant in Nurse, brought to tedious, joyous life by Rachel Atkins, Juliet is still alone in her tower, a child-bride all wrapped up to be married off to Paris, the prince, without her consent. The cast captures the volatility, passion, naiveté and danger of youth in exquisite detail. We know as if it is the first time we’ve ever known, that the heat and fever between the two young, inexperienced lovers only needs the slightest flint to spark alight and consume everything in naked flame. I almost wanted to watch through splayed fingers. But if I had done that, I might have missed this, the tender and achingly beautiful silent moment when the two dangle together in young wedded bliss from a swing, capturing in a single moment everything painful and beautiful about love.
The riotous success of the production is owed to the collaborative effort of HOME’s Creative and Technical teams, in harmony with the ensemble cast. The elements of the performance feel in sync, all revolving around a carefully considered script given particular attention to bringing Shakespeare to contemporary life.
Though lines may be lost, other things are communicated. 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
Celebrate they most certainly do. Given the grand setting of this site-specific production, the performance was not engulfed by the glorious, faded beauty of Victoria Baths. Rather, the Baths lends an eerie haunting to the production, creating an ever-present sense of water – fluidity, flooding, memories, loss, and fragility – as the backdrop to the unfolding fates of our star-crossed lovers. Focus on tone, infliction, and accents of characters, (ranging from thick Cockney to eastern European) in symbiosis with HOME’s Creative Team’s staging, music, and lighting magic creates an engaging, current, relevant production that assaults senses – whether you can see what’s happening or not. Due to inevitable restricted viewing in some places, sections of the standing audience could hear the action but not fully see it, as was the case in my experience when Juliet was obscured on the balcony from my view, though I clearly saw red rose petals falling from her clasp. Or, when Tybalt was killed by Romeo’s adolescent rage, I couldn’t see the act but witnessed a shocking spray of blood across the tiled pool wall. At other times in my standing position I was so close to the action I had to subtly fan myself.
This performance captivated me so completely that I forgot what tragedy was coming. Perhaps this was the production’s greatest strength: not only retelling a four hundred year old story as compellingly as if it is being told for the first time, but also bringing reviving the Victoria Baths by drawing a new audience to the venue, immersing them in the dramatic, enchanting romance of the space between story and place. As What’s On Stage has said, this is a breathtakingly beautiful piece of theatre. And I would like to think that Shakespeare would have given this production his seal of approval too.
The spellbinding production culminates in a final, breathtaking scene in the Gala Pool (Manchester Evening News called it Juliet’s flooded mausoleum) brimming with 86,000 gallons of water and dotted with wreaths of flowers and floating candles. Covering the pool is an enormous custom-made cross, at the centre of which Juliet lies ‘dead’. As the audience enters and we take our seats, all of us seated this time, our collective gasps and sighs are audible. We’ve realised what’s coming. And it is harrowing.
Nearly a week later, I still feel as though my night caught in the Montague-Capulet crossfire of young love was a dream. A hypnotic, painful, achingly beautiful, violent dream that I don’t quite want to ever wake from.
HOME’s Romeo & Juliet is running now, sold out until October 4. Even the waiting list for tickets is closed. For those of you yet to see the production, I envy you your discovery of the heart-rending delight awaiting you. Covet your tickets for the rare gifts they are.