I suppose that it was inevitable. After theatre-makers took Shakespeare to the Calais Jungle it seemed only a matter of time before the Jungle reciprocated.
As a concept Alex Pearson’s idea of setting Romeo and Juliet in a refugee camp may seem superficially gimmicky.
But this story, of warring families and forbidden love, is one that can be pitched anywhere and at any time. So why not a tent village of Syrian homeless scratching out a living in “fair Verona”?
London’s Rose Playhouse is transformed into a transit camp for the production, which officially opens tonight, and, before the drama gets under way, we listen to news reports from Bulgaria where a lot of families have pitched up looking for aid.
The Montagues and Capulets – here, we assume, two refugee families who are continuing their private battle away from the Syrian warzone – meet in the playhouse’s intimate performance space while the water-logged foundations of London’s most historic theatre are home to the unseen wretched and dispossessed.
This visceral, modern-dress production, makes us appreciate how relevant this timeless story is. It doesn’t matter if it’s told in doublet and hose or hoodie and black jeans, it is a tragic tale that we all recognise.
Here the lovers are played with gusto by James G Nunn and Rhiannon Sommers and they make a lovely couple. The intense Nunn, wild-eyed and fearless, throws himself about the stage and audience seating with reckless abandon. At one point he was under my feet before plonking himself down next to me to hand deliver his lines.
Juliet is equally bold, petulantly railing against the elderly because they have no conception about true love (where have I heard that before?) and impatiently striding up and down, twisting her hands in knots while awaiting her newfound boyfriend.
This is young couple who have no time for long courtships. They have been through so much, fleeing their homeland, defying their parents and alienating their friends, that you wished someone would write an alternative ending. Sadly we know that there is only one outcome.
Director Pearson has to obey the theatre’s remit of a 90-minute running time so the play’s elegant speeches have been truncated. That’s no bad thing as far as I’m concerned. An hour-and-a-half is more than long enough – even for the epic Hamlet.
The dialogue is delivered at speed with no time to waste, occasionally robbing the text of its romance, but making it far more naturalistic.
In the context of where the story is being played, it is entirely right. These are a group of people living on the front-line, not knowing if there will be food, shelter or even a life after the next few minutes. Time is of the essence.
Parys Jordon makes a striking Tybalt, doubling as Juliet’s unwanted suitor, Paris, in other scenes. His well-choreographed and full-on fight scene, firstly with Romeo’s pal, the wisecracking Mercutio (Niall Ransome making the camaraderie look effortless and natural), and then with the young lover himself, is packed with energy and realism.
It is more a violent scrap between knife-wielding street kids than gentlemen duellers armed with rapiers.
A big problem for small theatre companies is covering all essential roles and it’s all hands to the pump here.
Hardworking Esther Shanson plays four parts from Juliet’s gushing mother, Lady Capulet, to a female friar, and a pair of minor roles. In one scene I even thought that she briefly swapped with Elizabeth McNally to play Romeo’s mother.
McNally is fearsome and dynamic in her secondary role as Juliet’s nurse. The intimidating Scot’s accent helps. It’s no wonder Romeo was left quaking in his boots when she warned him to remain faithful to her lovely charge.
The final scenes in the family crypt are played out in near darkness. While this is atmospheric and probably lifelike, it does rob the audience the chance of seeing the compelling Nunn and Sommers breathe their last.
A powerfully told production that is also helping the refugee crisis by donating some of its ticket sales. Do your bit and book seats.
Romeo and Juliet runs at the Rose Playhouse until December 10.
Romeo and Juliet
A powerfully told story of warring families and forbidden love played out in a transit camp for Syrian refugees. Visceral and packed with emotion.