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Phil Willmott

Review: ROMEO AND JULIET at the Union Theatre

Romeo and Juliet In the interests of full disclosure I should reveal that this production has been directed by one of our regular critics, Andy Bewley, and is running at the the Union Theatre where I direct a lot.

It's with considerable relief then that I'm able to report that this revival of Romeo and Juliet, with gay men as the star crossed lovers within the context of two rival Verona football clubs, is packed with good and engaging ideas.

Any director tackling the play needs to find a context for the warring houses of Capulet and Montague and the tribalism of football fans whose blind allegiance to their home team goes back generations is as good a setting as any. Think of Liverpool where communities are defined by an attachment to Liverpool or Everton or Glasgow where a sporting clash between Celtic and Rangers traditionally spills on to the streets.

Although the production claims to be raising issues surrounding homophobia in football, when you make R&J two male soccer players you have a delicate balancing act to convey that they're a victim of both anti-gay attitudes AND tribalism. I'm not entirely convinced the play can support the lovers being threatened by both at the same time, it's like jeopardy overload; But this production has a really good stab at combining the two.

Ultimately however, because Shakespeare omitted to write text relating to homophobia and many characters don't bat an eye-lid about the couple's sexuality, caring only that they come from opposing football clubs, it actually pleasingly suggests that gay attraction is a secondary concern and that society's on the cusp of finding it irrelevant.

There's so much to enjoy about Andy's reinterpreting the ancient text as a gay version of TV soap Footballer's Wives. I loved lots of it: expressing sex through football (fantastic ball-skill movement work from the cast directed by Amy Warren) the Capulet Ball reimagined as a pub party gathered to watch a match (British pubs are often defined by which group of fans gather there) Friar Lawrence clearing weeds from the pitch, the nurse as a sports therapist... the highest praise I can give these directorial decisions is that I swear if you hadn't seen a conventional production it wouldn't occur to you the action could be played in any other way. I also loved Romeo's transition from tough guy to gawky, grinning idiot as he fell in love and that Tybalt's assault on Mercutio was fuelled by fear that he fancied him.

It's all staged with considerable panache that makes full use of the venue's intimacy and two banks of audience sat facing each other either side of a carpet of Astroturf, with specially composed music by Lawrence Morgan played live and Zac Macron suggesting various locations through shifts in his lighting design.

Perhaps having the actors directly talking to us was an alienating convention too far, the audience already have a lot to deal with and I wish adaptor Joe M Mackenzie had been braver with cuts to the text. The lovers rush to the alter is always hard to swallow in modern dress production and such a radical interpretation could have given the team license to cut it.

Unfortunately the main reason I can't allocate this production any more than three stars is that the inexperienced cast can't handle the text. It is possible to deliver Shakespeare conversationally as contemporary naturalism, it is possible to employ various regional accents. What you can't do however is stint on the consonants and deliver the lines without enough breath to get to the end of the sentence. E.g. If your going to shout "banished" you need to make sure we hear the B and the D otherwise it means nothing.

Once we're into the emotionally charged second half scene after scene is rushed, gabbled and incomprehensible. Only the older Capulets, Steven Rodgers and especially Sarah Barron as his wife have the necessary diction and clarity of intention to clearly convey the story using the archaic text.

I really hope Andy continues to develop the premise of his extremely promising concept and will return to it in a future production with better actors.