Union Theatre, London – until 20 May 2017
“I am in love with a man.”
Productions of Romeo and Juliet are not uncommon in the SE1 postcode, especially ones full of direct address to the audience and scored with live music. But what is surprising that there’s a considerably more moving and engaging production of Shakespeare’s tragedy to be found at the Union Theatre than the current one in residence up the road at the Globe. It’s no less radical a reinterpretation – the two lovers are reconceived as gay footballers here – but where Andy Bewley‘s production really succeeds is in capturing the exultant highs of heady teen romance and the troubling lows of battling a world that doesn’t accept you.
The move to the football field is lightly done as far as the text in concerned – a city divided by its football loyalties makes sense. The Capulets’ team are the red shirts of AC Verona whilst in the blue are the Montagues of Verona FC with Juliet and Romeo as the stars of their respective youth academy teams. And Joe M Mackenzie‘s adaptation pays dividends in many respects – Romeo’s flirtation with Rosaline manifests itself as homoerotic touching so often seen on the football field, taunts – homophobic or otherwise – spark real anger across the terraces, gender-swapping Paris as a would-be WAG positions her perfectly as the beard Lady Capulet needs her to be.
At the heart of the show lies two beautifully judged performances of yearning heart. In the cold light of day, the notion of being ‘banished’ has no real meaning in our contemporary world but you instantly forget that once you see and feel the heart-rending anguish of Sam Perry’s Juliet, then Abram Rooney’s Romeo. Theirs is a desperate, awkward, funny, sincere and deeply romantic connection – from fumbled first kisses to (foot)ball play that leads to, well, (other)ball play, you can’t help but root for their struggle against the macho stereotype of this most heteronormative of worlds (it’s worth remembering there’s not a single out football player in the English top tier).
The production is also blessed with strong decision-making throughout the squad. Henri Merriam makes a compelling groundswoman of a Friar Laurence, Gabrielle Nellis-Pain’s fag hag of a Nurse puts an interesting spin on her relationship with Juliet, and Celeste De Veazey is gorgeously, achingly well spoken as the loyal Benvolio. Bewly has his actors really fold the audience into the action and Rooney is particularly well-suited to the task with his highly charismatic Romeo, and the live music (composed by Laurence Morgan) performed by the cast is an effective and atmospheric choice.
The text could stand to be cut some more and at the final preview I attended, the final scene didn’t quite fully click into place to give the climax the room to explore the emotional depth that it deserves – that may well yet have been resolved. And there is much that is very good indeed here, Shakespeare that really does have something to say to the modern world without flicking a v-sign to those less modishly inclined.