Eastville Park, Bristol – until 29 July 2018
If Shakespeare promised his audience in the prologue of Romeo and Juliet two hours’ traffic of our stage’, Insane Root does one better and knocks out, probably the world’s most famous play, in 100 minutes. It’s Shakespeare done right; freshly minted, funny, accessible and cut to its key elements and provides a welcome jolt to a play that many who studied it at school could recite by heart. For those who think Shakespeare isn’t for them, Insane Root is the company to change those minds.
Over the past few years the company, led by artistic director Hannah Drake, producer Justin Palmer and composer/musical director Ellie Showering, have produced adaptations of classics in well-chosen site-specific works dotted across the city. The discovery of the old swimming pool in Eastville Park, two miles east of the city centre, proves an inspired place to plonk this tragedy of young love.
A Victorian swimming bath with modern shrubbery billowing from its cracks, it’s an ideal space to combine the historical with the modern and architecturally allows Drake to space out her energetic, fluid work. Its stone steps provide an amphitheatre for the action to play out, a space for the brawls to kick in and vows to be made. The shadowed corners allow forbidden love to be declared, letters to be exchanged and aching chorales to be sung. As the teenage extravagances of the early stages make way for the painful tragedy, sunshine turns to dusk, dusk to night. The natural lighting provides the perfect state to illuminate the work’s ever-darkening moods.
Drake’s adaptation cuts out excess fat and mixes some lines up, so for example parts of the prologue delivered as a final eulogy to the fallen lovers in the tomb. While some Shakespeare purists may sneer, it feels perfectly in keeping with the mantra that Jan Kott expounded over 50 years ago, of making Shakespeare our contemporary. With careful, thoughtful editing, the play takes a slightly different journey than the original without committing cultural vandalism. Shakespeare, the most collaborative of writers from what the history books suggest, would no doubt have been pleased to alter.
The work use original compositions from Showering to colour the atmosphere, a party composition that includes some only slightly cheesy audience interaction, a wedding hymn that incorporates some of Will’s most famous lines all led by the ringing clarity of Amy Gardyne’s lyrical voice, working on ever darkening folksy compositions. Acoustically the space works well, the verse is clear and voices bounce lightly through the space.
It is great to see a number of recent BOVTS graduates stepping up to take on the classics. Jessica Temple’s take on Juliet is a thing of wonder, a bouncy teenager who giggles at the idea of Romeo uncovered and can’t stop her gawky limbs from flailing. Temple plays her as an innocent fourteen, a young girl who turns to women in an instant when love and death strike one after another. Her verse speaking is beautiful and like a Rylance or Kinnear she has a way of making 400 year lines sound like a fresh thought. In a play where Juliet usually struggles to break free of the roles constrictions, Temple is the star attraction, a performance so full of pathos and humour that one almost wishes that this time the potion may take a different effect and this life isn’t struck out quite so quickly.
Opposite her Pete Edwards pitches his Romeo as a heady, impulsive and romantic young man who discards love as soon as a new opportunity presents itself and who goes full blitzkrieg when his best mate is killed in the street. The last Romeo I saw was Paapa Essiedu’s star creating turn for Shakespeare at The Tobacco Factory so Edward’s has a difficult task, but it is to his credit that he makes his Romeo something close to the roles I have previously admired him in from Pink Mist to Robin Hood, a likeable, slightly unhinged romantic who has a tendency to act before he thinks.
With two strong performances in its leads the work already has a winning hand but it straight flushes it with a number of skilfully etched supporting turns, from Deborah Tracey’s West Indian Nurse, doling out advice at a hundred miles an hour to Dan Wheeler’s sardonic Mercutio, a man whose tongue eventually costs him his life.
It all adds up to a fair Verona where you are happy to spend a couple of hours. Clean, concise and fresh Insane Root’s Romeo and Juliet finds a new mix to play for these two star-cross’d lovers.