Contemporary and fast-paced, yet with all the heart of Shakespeare’s original, this is a production which drags Romeo and Juliet headfirst into the twenty-first century, complete with strippers, raves, and a velour tracksuit-wearing, chain-smoking Nurse. When the audience takes their seats for this performance, the cast is already on stage, warming up. They are all doing vocal exercises, chatting and jumping around, while one of the male actors (who shortly turns out to be Benvolio) recites the Prologue multiple times over. The first impression is one of chaos: the noise and hectic movements onstage create a feeling of being almost overwhelmed, and from the start we are completely caught up in the action.
This is a performance which really engages with the text and tries hard to draw out many of the jokes which can often be overlooked or no longer appeal to a contemporary audience, really highlighting the fact that, although four centuries have passed since this play was first performed, its characters and themes are still as relevant to our society as they have ever been. There is a convincing attempt to explore the characters and establish relationships between them, such as the evident paternal affection between Friar Laurence and Romeo. The characterisation feels completely natural, and – especially with Romeo, Juliet and Mercutio – we really get an insight into these characters, their motivations and hopes, lending the production a credibility which is sometimes lacking in such an overtly dramatic tragedy.
Christopher York’s Romeo was wonderfully impetuous, utterly convincing, and just the right level of naïve, making his headstrong actions as the love-struck hero completely believable. Claire Latham’s American accent was hard to get over at first, especially when contrasted with York’s rough Geordie accent, but by the time the next scene came around this irritation had faded into the background as the two actors performed the most intimate and sweet balcony scene, often dropping their voices into whispers. Their chemistry was phenomenal throughout, as they really captured the energy of Shakespeare’s characters, fully embodying them even in the midst of the longer speeches.
The stage is small and sparse, with the set consisting only of three wheeled platforms which could be moved around the stage and dressed up with props, such as a TAXI sign, to indicate changes in scene. The entire cast was onstage at all times, often changing outfits at the back as they switched between roles, or doing something to stay in character – Tybalt, for example, was doing boxing practice, while Juliet moodily listened to her iPhone, the picture of a ‘tortured teen.’ Occasionally, this became distracting or just a bit strange, as when Lord and Lady Capulet danced in slow motion around a cigarette. However, at other points it worked well – as in the poignant scene when Romeo and Juliet are visible in the background while Lord and Lady Capulet arrange her wedding to Paris.
Music was often used in this performance, sometimes as a feature of a scene, as in the Capulet’s masked ball (translated in this production into a rave where everyone saw sunglasses, featuring Capulet as the DJ), but at other times reduced to a throbbing bass behind most of the scenes, underscoring the building tension – for example in the fight between Mercutio and Tybalt. During the rave scene, one of the servants went around with a video camera, getting close-ups of the party goers, while the feed was projected onto the back wall of the stage. This was an interesting idea on its own, but when Romeo and Juliet escape from the party under a table, hidden from the audience’s view, the camera is useful at providing us with a sense of undisturbed intimacy. This detail really sums up The Faction’s performance of Romeo and Juliet; it manages to be energetic and modern, while still capturing the essence of Shakespeare’s original play, proving once again the infinite possibilities of this timeless love story.