Romeo and Juliet

William Shakespeare
Mokitagrit Productions
Mosaica@The Chocolate Factory, London N22

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Journey into the north London industrial wilderness that surrounds the Mountview Theatre School and you are led to Mosaica@The Chocolate Factory, an über-cool restaurant seemingly carved from a 1950s manufacturing concrete block. To reach your culinary goal, you pass through a courtyard, or, more precisely, that open well designed to allow natural light into the steel-framed windows that rise mercilessly overhead like a Stalinesque prison block.

Instead of the steady thrum of machinery, you are greeted now by the beatbox thud of street music. Two ranks of audience seating, angled diagonally across the space, reveal a central traverse acting area, its concrete surface softened by a jigsaw of rubber-tiled matting. A couple of body-poppers strut their muscle-isolating stuff, occasionally glancing skywards at a free-running team who cavort precariously on the rooftop above. Washing hangs from balconies that once only supported the elbows of cigarette-smoking workers. This is a Kafka world of graffiti and noise, its urban, twenty-first-century violence bubbling only millimetres beneath its surface.

Just so is our introduction to the Mokitagrit production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, updated in style, but refreshingly faithful to the text and to the narrative of star-crossed young lovers, doomed to die in this world of feud and patriarchal oppression. Unaware that both Romeo and Juliet are sitting in our midst, so immediate is the staging of the play, we observe the opening street battle between rival gangs, as athletic and violent as any gritty movie-rendition. Brilliantly effective, without the tired cliché of fake stage blood, knives flash and bodies are metaphorically ripped open, the pain of youthful exuberance, love and hate exploding viscerally in our minds and stomachs.

Adam Welsh has directed with an astonishing appreciation and awareness of space, capturing the essence of the play and translating it with a wit and humour that belies the technical difficulties of ensuring actors appear at upstairs windows to shout their lines, or scene-change performers leap over furniture, removing items of set and props with manic speed. Not often a scene change gets a round of applause. Here, the mundane act of stripping the bed of a teenage love-nest, or snatching washing from a strategically stretched line, is as magical and energized as the scenes they seamlessly interrupt.

It is wrong to presume that this will, by default, be a young cast. Nevertheless, both Romeo and Juliet do appear fascinatingly young, their gauche physicalities matching the youthful anxiety of their newly-discovered sexuality. Kyle McPhail plays Romeo as an angst-ridden street-urchin, his soft Scottish accent flowing mellifluously alongside Shakespeare’s language. McPhail injects a vulnerability and childish glee into his performance that is all adolescent fire and fury, sexual desire and utter dejection, perfectly in tune with the tone of the production and of the character. When eventually Romeo takes his life, there is no sense of world-weariness that comes from age and experience. This is a young man shocked at the speed that his poisonous draft takes off his life.

Esther Smith’s Juliet appears even younger, almost pre-pubescent in her girlish delight at discovering Romeo. At first, this youthfulness made the sexual interplay uncomfortable to watch. As the play progressed, Smith’s interpretation grew in stature and maturity, her eventual suicide an act completely in keeping with the character she had created.

Parental pressure was supplied most effectively by Jennifer Biddall’s overtly sexy Lady Capulet, willing to embrace the young men entertained at her home with somewhat more than maternal passion. Simon Holmes as Montague and Jeremy Lloyd Tomas as Capulet added to the integrity of the older roles, whilst Ben Freeman’s Prince Escalus, somewhat incongruously (and undoubtedly no fault of his own) dressed in a police uniform, overcame his costume obstacle to give a moving and sincere performance.

Two actors also shone in this rugged industrialized galaxy. Darren Lawrence, cast serendipitously as Friar Lawrence, presented a cleric more interested in his gardening than the troubles of his wayward parish. When Lawrence/Lawrence does involve himself in the lives of the youngsters around him, his good intentions obviously go far astray. As a performance, this was as valid and sincere an interpretation as any imaginable. Similarly, Duncan Wilkins as Mercutio shone like a beacon of light, his plumby accent and Russell-Brand good looks complementing the irreverent humour of his stage-presence. When Mercutio died, a symbolic light of hope also died, heralding the tragedy to follow.

This was a brave, site-specific production, made more immediate by the aptness of the location and the spirit of the performances. Breathing fresh air into an oft-played classic, this Romeo and Juliet deserved far more than a limited run in the disused inner courtyard of a retired chocolate factory. I fear for any stage technicians who watched in disbelief as scenery was moved. Circus tricks and acrobatic skills certainly added to this tale, as timeless in its bitter tragedy as it is uplifting in its evocation of young love.

Reviewer: Kevin Quarmby

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