Romeo and Juliet at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

Holly Spanner reviews Amy Leach’s new production of Romeo & Juliet at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds…

A staple of the school syllabus for generations, Romeo and Juliet remains perhaps the most analysed play of all time. So just how do you go about staging a production so well known that it still holds you on the edge of your seat as when it was first published in 1597?

Associate Director Amy Leach has done just that. Following the critically acclaimed production of Kes at the West Yorkshire Playhouse last spring, Leach has brought the production crashing into the modern era, set to a soundtrack of contemporary soft rock. Reminiscent of an inner city skate park or school playground, Hayley Grindle’s set is a bleak concrete jungle of platforms and iron railings. Under the beating summer sun, weeds push their way through the cracks and a drainage gutter runs around the perimeter of the circular stage.

This grey, unforgiving cityscape is bought to life with lively energy from the young cast. Fights are filmed on smartphones, and the Capulets are proprietors of Capulets Boxing Gym. The harsh stone of the streets becomes a vibrant underground club, flooded with neon, where at the planetary themed party, the star-cross’d lovers (both, dressed as stars), are destined to meet. Capturing the delicious awkwardness of modern courtship on a ‘night out’, time stands still Dan Parr as Romeo and Tessa Parr as Juliet weave in and out of party-goers in an innocent game of cat and mouse.

Gone are dreamlike expressions and sighs of longing, instead Dan Parr portrays an impulsive Yorkshire lad, with the excitement of a child at Christmas, using the Bards words as tongue-in-cheek grandiose expressions of love. Juliet, being amused by his statements, humors him in a gritty and strong, yet vulnerable and honest performance, her body language and facial expressions often conveying multiple, conflicting thoughts. A tender moment is shared at the wedding dance, where, despite the short passage of time, the pair is no longer an excitable couple in the first throws of romance, but one in awe of each other.

Gender-blind casting can be risky, but Leach has made it work. Friar Lawrence has become the Reverend Lawrence (Olwen May), a motherly, caring figure of authority and reason, she is trusted, and moves from a somewhat supporting role to a much more prominent character, central to the inevitable tragedy. Mercutio is played by Elexi Walker, and brings a new dynamic to the play. Larger than life, she portrays an extroverted, humorous Mercutio who is in love with life itself, fiercely loyal to Romeo; she has an insatiable, hungry energy.

Featuring an ensemble from the Playhouse Youth Theatre, this is a thoroughly enjoyable reinterpretation of a classic text. There are a few tweaks here and there, for example, there are no mentions of Juliet’s age (whose marriage at 13 years old would be questionable these days), but in doing so it bridges the generational divide, and it avoids the clichés associated with bringing the play into a contemporary setting.

Runs until: 25 March 2017
Reviewed on: 18 March 2017
Image: Anthony Robling