It was a very hard decision on what rating to give this production. Had it just been the first half it would have been a definite four stars, often verging on five star territory. From the choreographed fight scenes to Lady Gaga hits via managing to use effectively a literally huge expanse of stage both in the round and proscenium, there was an energy and vitality to proceedings that was quite enervating to watch. Things were rough around the edges, admittedly, and required a certain extra polishing to provide finesse but the ingredients of good theatre were manifest; director Ben Hughes-Games and his talented team had created a thoroughly believable and exciting world.
Taking on Romeo & Juliet in particular of Shakespeare's canon is made doubly difficult in a modern interpretation because you are not only tackling the bard's words but also a version that has become seminal amongst the cultural zeitgeist of most people born after circa 1987; Baz Luhrman's. Yet this production managed to steer clear of that film's shadow with its own powerful imagination, and crucially a sapphic twist; both Romeo and Juliet were girls.
A lesbian version of Romeo & Juliet sounds like the stuff student drama horror productions are made of, but the talented younger members of the cast pulled it off with a plomb and made an astonishingly sincere political point by doing so. The question that dogs gay marriage, of whether it should be 'allowed', was simply eliminated. By just changing every reference to Romeo from masculine to feminine, the only issue at stake for the characters in the production by Romeo and Juliet's affair was the famous one of the Montagues verses the Capulets, never did anyone raise an eyebrow that two members of the same sex should be enjoying a romance and marriage together.
Some fantastic imagery was utilised upon the stage as well, Hughes-Games seems to be quite the visionary director. Juliet dressed in French maid's attire holding a tiara of roses; Mercutio and his ilk in commedia masks; the stage filling with endless characters from every side as a brawl escalates, until the female Prince strides in to knock heads in her River Island jacket. Perhaps the fight sequences weren't very convincing, even if the cast list does claim they benefited from three choreographers, but playing pop music over them oddly enough really did work.
Acting-wise in the main roles the younger members of the cast were far more convincing and enjoyable to watch than the older, who gave more pedestrian and listless performances (aside from Janet Adams' humorously Bristolian Nurse). Jasmine Smart's Romeo displayed a natural energy that held the stage, Tom Hunt portrayed a fierily charismatic Tybalt, Callum Buckler's ballsy Mercutio grabbed the spectators' attention. Maia Ayling was an absolute revelation as Juliet, coquettish and poignant in equal measures, imbuing her lines with a sparkling craft; possibly one of the best performances I've seen since I returned to Bristol.
So, what went wrong? Namely, it was far far too long, and in the second half the life dissipated slowly out of the performance. It didn't seem like the production team had had enough time to devote to the last scenes and as a consequence they suffered, seeming rushed and dispelling credibility. People kept on dying by a quick jerk of the head like a bad GCSE devised piece, when Tom Hatherley's Friar Lawrence enters the tomb and mourns the bodies he can see it was as if he was comprising a list for the weekly shop down Sainsbury's. Also, although it's unfair to concentrate solely on Hatherley (Lord & Lady Capulet were equally as dull and had there been more time hopefully better performances could have been coaxed out of all of them) his gimmicky shedding of a single tear in his final speech only served to illustrate that the whole scene was devoid of any real emotion.
Nothing appeared to have been cut at all; they'd even kept a scene with musicians in it, which was annoying because they put real instruments on stage which were then taken off again without being used. Have they not heard of the Chekhov line? 'If a pistol appears on stage at some point it has to be shot.' As the entirety of the script was presented this meant that a performance which didn't start until late anyway, 8.15pm, didn't finish until a quarter to midnight. We are not living in Elizabethan times anymore, theatre-goers do not require three and a half hours of a production to feel they've got their money's worth. A ruthless red pen would have been much advised before rehearsals started, and if they had cut then they would have had more time to spend on those crucial important end scenes that lacked dramatic integrity.
I've written far more on this play than the RemoteGoat guidelines suggest and that's because it's got the makings of a truly brilliant production within it, it's just marred by an inattention to wider context. Because the setting was in-the-round I was afforded a perfect view of my fellow spectators in the final scene who were looking at their phones under the table, checking their watches or studying the ceiling. If you've lost your audience that much by the end of a performance then I'm afraid, however good your beginnings, you can only get three stars.