Secret Studio Lab is an underground theatre company, founded in 2007. It has returned to London’s East End after sold-out runs in New York and Hollywood, and pioneers a genuinely new sort of stagecraft. Rather than knowing what the play will be, the would-be theatre-goer simply buys a ticket, and is then sent details of a secret location, map and password to use upon arrival. Past locations have included warehouses and asylums – this time it was a half built new luxury complex on London City Island. The play? Romeo and Juliet. This new brand of immersive theatre was thoroughly engaging, and never failed to surprise.
As I walked across a large, futuristic bridge to the secret location, I was met by a vision of high rise concrete, fluorescent lighting and gravel. At once eerie and beautiful, the building itself was a floor to ceiling glass bungalow, complete with a bar and a small pond in the centre. This gave away nothing about the drama still to come, the laddish barmen jeering as tower blocks, train tracks and street lights shone in the distance. At 7.45pm, sharp, the audience was herded outside with shouts about a curfew, and were soon met with cries of “Montague!” and “Capulet!” from the apparent barmen – actors in disguise. Shakespeare’s romantic masterpiece had been revealed as the night’s entertainment. Few will be unfamiliar with the tale of the star-crossed young lovers who belong to warring families – Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet. However, this version updated the action to contemporary East London, the Montague family of working class British descent, whilst the Capulets were Asian Muslim. In this sense, directors Crawford and Johnston made a clever comment on the current social conflict in the East End surrounding race and class, giving Shakespeare a new lease of life. The setting was also appropriate for a play about partisanship – our luxury oasis was flanked by rows of impoverished flats, wealth and poverty in a kind of face off.
This version of the classic tragedy was more of an experience, than a play. The lack of an auditorium (all of the action was performed outside, in different parts of the housing complex) took away the traditional boundaries of theatre, freeing up the actors and the audience. The proximity made the drama feel more real: the actors even spoke to us at various points, welcoming us, begging us for help, or asking us to follow them. This, coupled with the creative use of staging (including one particularly clever use of a balcony) truly created the effect that we were all in the play together. Whilst the acting was excellent, and particular performances do stand out (such as Dilek Latif as the comic Nurse, Muzz Khan as the understanding Imam and Lauren Santana as the charismatic Juliet), what I take away most from the performance is a sense of collaboration. It is hard to distinguish an acting highlight, because the play was very much an ensemble piece, and largely based on audience cooperation. We followed the action, almost like an over the shoulder camera shot, rather than having it brought to us on a traditional stage.
All in all, Secret Studio Lab’s exciting production was an extremely pleasant surprise, and one that I would recommend to anyone with an open mind and £28 to spare.