One common criticism about Shakespeare’s work (and any attempts stage in today’s day and age) is the inaccessibility of the language as well as the socio-political environment of the Elizabethan era which is harder for contemporary audiences to relate to. Both these concerns are allayed spectacularly in the Intermission Youth Theatre’s (IYT) adaptation of the bard’s Juliet & Romeo (note the change in order) that’s currently playing at the Chelsea Theatre.
In an exciting and urgent production directed by IYT Artistic Director Darren Raymond, we witness an ensemble of young actors (some stepping on the stage for the first time) breathe fresh life into words written over 400 years ago and do so in a way that allows them to own the truth of the characters they embody. This is backed by some intriguing artistic choices made by the team – all of Juliet’s lines are transposed with that of Romeo – and the show itself is performed by two different casts who swap roles as the main characters and the chorus. For Raymond, this choice was motivated by an exploration of “what it means to be a woman in this world.”, adding that the line swap not only offers fresh insight into the bard’s words but also allowed the performers to access a wider range of emotions with their characters. The project itself has come out of IYT’s 10-month drama programme that engages young people lacking in opportunity from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, enhancing their life skills through theatre. As the performers found Shakespeare’s tales in their lives, they brought their lives to his world as well – the city of Verona is swapped for modern-day London and reimagines the Montague and Capulet households as a brewing feud between the Southern and the Eastern parts of the capital. Even the black plague gets a clever acknowledgement in this adaptation, with Friar John unable to deliver the letter to Juliet due to COVID-19 quarantine restrictions whilst travelling.
The original text is interspersed with modern-day speech that not only reflects contemporary attitudes towards identity, honour and relationships but also underpins the mood and rhythm of this adaptation. This is complemented by Delyth Evans’ costume design that allows us to glimpse a bit deeper into each character’s everyday life, as well as a set design that is modular and dynamic like the overall artistic treatment. The performers relish this freedom and space (literally and metaphorically) to carve intriguing characters. Chadrack Mbuini’s Romeo is self-conscious yet assured, whilst Ophelia J. Wisdom’s Juliet is unassuming and spirited. Niara Rowe’s Mercutio is unreservedly dogmatic and pitted against Elijah Maximus’ Tibs (Tybalt) who is unflinchingly indiscreet about how contemptuous a possible reunion might be between the two households. Megan Samuel’s caring yet belligerent Capo (Capulet) is ready to draw blood for honour, but is persuaded otherwise by Christopher Mbaki’s calm and collected Friar who, along with a rib-tickling Lawrence played by Tyrese Taylor (a nod to Friar John in the original text), carry out the lovers’ plan to fake death and escape. Both Mbaki and Taylor draw lots of laughs with their character’s well-meaning intentions yet misplaced actions. The accompanying chorus play their parts well, wringing out the original lines at opportune moments and creating a sense of togetherness with the audience.
IYT’s Juliet & Romeo at the Chelsea Theatre is a stunning example of how the bard’s timeless love story might find a place in today’s increasingly fractured political scenario without being reduced to merely an academic or a nostalgic indulgence.
You can watch Juliet & Romeo by the Intermission Youth Theatre at the Chelsea Theatre till Saturday 4th December. Read more and book your tickets at https://www.ticketsource.co.uk/whats-on/chelsea/the-chelsea-theatre/juliet-romeo/e-pjlzpl
Reviewer: Gaurav Singh Nijjer
Reviewed: 19th November 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★