Carla van der Sluijs,
Many thespians shy away from chopping and changing Shakespeare’s masterpieces. However, BoxedIn Theatre did not, and the result was a bold and flawless masterpiece of their own. Romeo and Juliet, directed by Oli Savage and produced by Sarah Chamberlain, was a moving and immersive experience evoked through insightful staging and memorable performances.
Suspense was high before the show had even begun. On arrival, the audience members were divided to wait in different areas depending on their choice of clan, as specified by their tickets. With Montagues masked in blue and Capulets in red, we were escorted into separate rooms during the prologue. As a Capulet, I witnessed excitement building in the family household while plans for Juliet’s engagement to Paris were discussed. The two halves of the audience were then reunited as the Montagues entered from the other room to gate crash the Capulet ball. After a lively dance scene, a partition was opened to reveal an enormous performance space and the famous ‘thumb-biting scene.’
Following this powerful and well-choreographed opening, different scenes would be performed at the same time in the Club 601 space, leaving the audience free to walk between them as they pleased. Though there was initially some hesitation, this didn’t last long at all and the audience quickly became comfortable walking across the space to observe sections of the story. Occasionally at these ‘open plan performances’ the audience are herded between scenes like cattle, but the freedom to explore at Romeo and Juliet made us feel like we were in another world and created a completely immersive experience. Our view of the play was selective, but this made for a more personal viewing as the audience followed the characters they were most interested in.
Prior to the performance, I had wondered whether seeing the play in this unusual manner would distance us from the emotional impact of Shakespeare’s story. I am pleased to say that this was not the case thanks to Savage’s careful arrangement of scenes. We saw the Capulets and Romeo hear the news of Juliet’s death at the same time, resulting in a reverberating sense of devastation, despite the fact we knew she wasn’t really dead. Tensions between the Montagues and Capulets reached their breaking point in aggressive hostilities at the centre of the room, whilst Romeo and Juliet were getting married not too far away. This made the happy scene between the couple even more heart-breaking in the knowledge that familial hatred would eventually crush their joy. Savage’s direction of the over-lapping scenes worked brilliantly to create an overwhelming sense of the situation spiralling out of control for the young lovers, thus powerfully rendering them victims to tragic circumstance. The action was accompanied by an excellent soundtrack written by the director, and the tense music used in the fight scenes was particularly emotive.
However, do not for one second think that this production relied solely on its staging. Savage’s rich interpretation of the text brought it to life and injected new details into old lines. The foremost change was to make Romeo and Juliet a lesbian couple. Though gender-bending Shakespeare has been done before, few directors have the nerve to change the pronouns of the text, unlike Savage. By casting Romeo as a woman, the forbidden romance became even more of a deep secret that the pair were risking themselves for. A homosexual relationship was also added between Benvolio and Mercutio, which produced further emotional weight from Mercutio’s murder in a street brawl. In addition, Friar Lawrence was cast as a female gypsy woman, bringing a maternal warmth to the role that made her condemnation by the prince at the ending of the play deeply affecting.
These daring choices were secured in their success thanks to a talented cast. There was not one sub-par actor among them and everyone had full commitment to their roles. The innocence of Juliet (Shonagh Smith) was beautifully contrasted with the edginess of Romeo (Caitlin Morris) to create a pair that the audience fully rooted for. Kezia Johnson as Lady Capulet was brilliantly cast in her role. She gave the perfect portrayal of an aloof and distant mother who really wasn’t in touch with her daughter’s feelings. This was well-contrasted by Friar Lawrence, played by Emily Hoyle who gave an authentic performance as a caring and motherly character. Seb Bridges as Lord Capulet was frighteningly cold in the face of challenge to his plans. Bridge controlled his character’s aggression well, meaning Capulet’s sudden violence against Juliet on her refusal to marry Paris was sudden and shocking.
Overall, Romeo and Juliet was an astonishing debut production from BoxedIn Theatre. The performance flowed seamlessly and gifted something completely original to the St Andrews theatre scene. Savage’s inventive direction made us feel welcomed into the story, and in this regard the show would have made a fantastic introduction for those new to immersive theatre. The company already has a summer tour planned and I simply cannot wait to see more of their magic.
STARS: * * * * *
Carla van der Sluijs
Production photos by Louis Catliff