By D Cannon
This is a sparkling, dynamic, and wonderfully performed adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet for children, which balances appeal and accessibility with a deeply felt appreciation of the play’s more difficult themes.
The piece is performed by an ensemble of seven young actors from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, who work hard to open up the text to their young audience. As soon as they enter the circus-tent style space in which the play is performed, children are greeted and entertained by Emily, a young girl who has just moved house after the separation of her parents. In the process of unpacking, Emily discovers a copy of Romeo and Juliet, and our play unfolds as she reads her way through the text, the characters coming to life in her bedroom and inviting her to join their world. The first part is packed full of joyous energy and comedy, and there’s a good deal of audience interaction. The cast have a lovely childlike freedom to their physicality, and the performance space, which has actors and audience in close proximity, enhances the openness between them. The simple set and props are the contents of a typical modern child’s bedroom (including a bunk-bed and Harry Potter). The script is a mix of original Shakespearean and modern language, which only very occasionally sounds incongruous – in general the melding enables the company to communicate the story clearly to their audience while retaining the most beautiful of Shakespeare’s language.
There’s no getting away from the tragic ending of the bard’s play, and the challenging themes which run through it, all of which make it a tough choice to present to a very young audience – quite apart from the fact that most children between the ages of 5 and 12 are likely to consider a love story unappealing. Of course all of this also contributes to making Romeo and Juliet the exhilarating, heart-rending text that it is, and the energetic young ensemble embrace the difficulties to produce a piece full of humour, drama, joie de vivre and honest emotion. All of the most important of the original play’s themes are expertly communicated here: the reckless spontaneity of youth, the pointlessness of gang violence, and the awful shock of life needlessly wasted.
The cast (Bethan Nash, Callum McIntyre, Dominic Creasey, Toby Webster, Millie Corser, Sean Mulkerrin, and Patrick Tolan) are all outstanding, managing the shift from comedy to tragedy with ease, and achieving a real rapport with their young audience. They also perform all the live music which is such a strong feature of this piece. Guitar, cello, saxophone, recorder, drum, and the cast’s voices, are used with great effect to enhance the mood of joyous party scenes, and the tense stand-off between Mercutio and Tybalt in the Italian heat.
I attended with a slightly reluctant ten year old boy, but he was won over sufficiently to concede that while it still wasn’t his kind of thing, he had enjoyed it and thought it was a good play. Other audience members, of all ages, appeared captivated throughout, and left full of enthusiasm for the performers and play.
This is a fantastic theatre experience for children and adults alike, and highly recommended.