The Dark Side of Love

Renato Rocha and the company
Roundhouse & LIFT 2012 in association with the Royal Shakespeare Company
Roundhouse (Dorfman Hub)

Credit: Tim Mitchell.
Credit: Tim Mitchell.
Credit: Tim Mitchell.

This is a promenade show devised by London teenagers and a creative team led by Brazilian actor and director Renato Rocha (who last month appeared here and at Stratford in Two Roses for Richard III). It is part of the World Shakespeare Festival and takes place in the undercroft of the Roundhouse, in the atmospheric bare-brick central space, encircling corridor and radiating tunnels that lay beneath the turntable and tracks of the former railway locomotive repair shop.

Filing from the glossy modernity of the Roundhouse foyer into the darkness, the audience is for a time left to explore, leaving each person to seek out their own encounters with the figures that sit on the ground, lean against the walls or are installed in the tunnels, sometimes viewed through torn holes in the sheets stretched across their entrances.

Almost immediately there is a girl mixing Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy with her remarks on her own situation and there are other snatches of Hamlet heard elsewhere. Some speak Portuguese, one girl German, and speeches are fragmented among many voices. A half-hidden lad is tinkling the ivories while the girl perched above him speaks through a megaphone, a man trying on gasmasks for size, a Byronic-looking curly-haired could be a nineteenth-century poet or left over from a 1970s band that played here.

Each half-hidden vista has its own story: that man making potions, the tulle-skirted coryphée lying on the ground. Sometimes there is an obvious Shakespearean connection, sometimes the story must be their own, and that girl who keeps passing, looking for someone, is she a performer or a punter? At this stage the audience is part of the show; well-timed, for when you think you have caught everything you are nudged through a torn sheet and find yourselves in the middle of a slide show: faces, some underwater with a bubble of air, and sometimes I thought blood, on their lips, abstract patterns, a metronome then suddenly you are in the dark heart of the hub, a line of bright lights at your feet. Now installation turns into performance.

The young cast now begins an exploration of attraction, courtship and seduction, sometimes choreographed in unison, sometimes a separate intrusion like the group of youths joshing one of their mates who's got hooked on a girl (they could be Romeo's gang in Verona). It is a flow of physical theatre, text and choreography that shepherds the audience into new configurations, celebrating the discovery of love before things turn darker and love's doubts and pains predominate.

Sometimes the words or the situations are clearly Shakespeare's, sometime not. There is little if any text when things are all romantic: no wondering Miranda or doting Orlando. As love goes sour or tragedy intervenes it is Othello, Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet that become most recognisable as sources. Some of the high points are a modern rather rap-like poem passionately delivered by a blonde young woman desperate to save a relationship, a dramatic physical episode with the rest of the cast restraining lovers eager to reach each other in restraint and a sequence that builds on Ophelia's return of Hamlet's letters

It is often powerful stuff, strikingly performed, but seems rather one-sided. It is only the girls who seem to get rough treatment. There is no troubled Troilus here, no Dark Lady and everything seems very heterosexual, certainly no poet pining Mr W H. Was there really not one gay member of the Camden youngsters or the production team making a demand for representation? Perhaps that would not match Brazilian machismo or perhaps it is because Shakespeare's Antonios and the sonneteer himself are an older generation—but Othello is also older than his bride.

The costumes designed by Georgia Lowe allow the characters to be simultaneously present day and past and she has frequently stained them red, sometimes in great blotches, it could be menstrual, virginal or murdered blood to match the circumstance and in one enigmatic image the devisers borrow from John Ford not William Shakespeare. This is a show that is not afraid to be cathartic.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton