“Two household’s, both alike in dignity. In fair Verona where we lay our scene”. So begins Shakespeare’s 1597 tragic love story of star crossed lovers. Intended as a radical reinterpretation of the classic tale, Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures company does away with the feuding families, the setting and indeed many of the characters. Instead the tragedy is set within the confines of the “Verona Institute” – some form of psychiatric ward in the not too distant future. And rather than being from rival Montagues and Capulets, the eponymous lovers are two patients being treated in the institute.
Stripping back the characters and removing the text forces you to concentrate on the connection between the characters, and in that aspect Bourne’s production is excellent. the chemistry between Romeo (Andy Monaghan) and Juliet (Seren Williams) is beautiful; their moment of meeting at the party and subsequent coming together crackles and fizzes with excitement. As they weave around each other and intertwine you feel their passion, all sound tracked brilliantly to Prokofiev’s score. Their romance is the highlight of the piece, with it’s devastating ending heartrendingly performed by the pair.
Similarly impressive is the ensemble cast. As part of New Adventure‘s endeavour to nurture the next generation of dancing talent in the UK, the whole show was cast from open auditions nationwide, and at each venue on the tour six local dancers take up place in the ensemble. It is testament to their talent and the hard work of Bourne’s creative team that they blend seamlessly in with the ‘permanent’ cast.
Less convincing is the overall concept for Bourne’s piece. Romeo and Juliet has been reinterpreted in different ways ever since it’s creation. Each interpretation can reveal fresh or different perspectives, from Baz Luhrman’s film with guns set on Venice Beach to the 1957 film West Side Story highlighting the violence between rival gangs. Yet here the interpretation falls flat. Rather than rival gangs or families, the Verona Institute is divided into girls and boys. Each are generally kept apart by officious looking guards and officers, yet are allowed to interact. The two sides don’t appear to hate each other and the only obvious tension between them is sexual tension. As a result the drama has to come from a prison guard, playing the equivalent to the Tybalt role. This change in dynamic removes much of the fuel which creates the drama in Shakespeare’s script.
The other issue with Bourne’s Romeo + Juliet is the choice of location. Set in a mental institution, the cast are subjected to medication, examination and strict exercise regimes. Their movements vary from uptight and restricted in the presence of authority to wild and passionate when let loose. Yet the subject of mental health isn’t really tackled or explored. Why have these young people been institutionalised? What help are they receiving while inside? A cynic might think that the setting was chosen to tie in with the increasing awareness of mental health, and to tap in to the surrounding zeitgeist. However, in doing so did they consider how it looks to then show people with mental health problems rocking backwards and forwards before ultimately killing each other or themselves?
As a piece of modern dance, Bourne’s production is a triumph. The choreography is dazzling, the music and score have been adapted from the original with a pared down orchestra by Terry Davies to great effect and the ensemble work from the cast is excellent. Yet sadly as an overall piece of work it doesn’t feel fully thought through with regards to how the reinterpretation changes the dynamics of the piece or intent behind it. Excellent choreography and performances, hampered by issues with the interpretation.
Matthew Bourne’s Romeo + Juliet is running at the Wales Millenium Centre until the 22nd June 2019.
Hi Connor great to meet you, can you give our readers some background information on yourself please?
Hi there. Honour to be here. I’m an actor and a writer based in Wales. I was born and raised in Newport. I trained as an actor at Trinity Saint David in Carmarthen and graduated with a degree in 2013. Since then as an actor I have worked in both theatre and TV with companies such as Taking Flight Theatre, BBC Wales, Fluellen Theatre, National Theatre Wales, Sherman Theatre and more recently Omidaze.
Connor in As You Like It, Taking Flight Theatre Company .
Photo by Jorge Lizalde
As a writer I have been commissioned by National Theatre Wales, Dirty Protest, Avant Theatre and No Boundaries. I am a member of National Youth Theatre of Great Britain, a member of National Theatre Wales’ TEAM Panel and I’m also the winner of the 2015 Welsh MonologueSlam run by Triforce Creative.
I think it was the chance to play different characters and explore, create and escape to new worlds whilst in my late teenage years. I had a lot of anger and frustration back then and drama gave me a creative outlet. A way to channel that into acting.
You are an actor can you explain how this role operates within the creative team on a theatrical production ?
On a theatrical production an actor is the one that brings the characters to life and speaks the words written in the script. They bring the characters from the paper to the stage. We attend rehearsals and work with the director and other members of the team such as vocal coaches, choreographers, lighting and sound designers, stage managers and many more to rehearse the piece for a certain amount of time and bring it all together so it’s a polished piece ready for audiences.
You are currently working on a new version of the classic play Romeo and Juliet which is being produced by Omidaze Productions. Do you think Shakespeare is still relevant to todays audiences?
The Romeo and Juliet Company in rehearsals
I believe Shakespeare is still relevant. He was a playwright and wrote stories with various themes and many of those stories still resonate with audiences today, the themes remain and we still experience them (Wether you are dealing with grief like Hamlet, Prejudice like Othello, Betrayal like Macbeth or falling in love like Romeo.)
Take Romeo & Juliet for example, yes it’s the classical love story of two young lovers but amongst that we have two families who have been feuding for years. That conflict is still relevant to today’s audience. Be it not between two families but even two countries. All you have to do is pick up a newspaper or turn the TV on and conflict is among us. People rebelling, people fighting and just like in Romeo & Juliet, unnecessary people get hurt and dare I say killed as a result of that conflict. The more you delve into Shakespeare’s stories the more you unlock and the more you then find that you can relate to on a human level. We are all human after all and we all feel emotion on different scales. Shakespeare highlighted many issues which I believe are still present in today’s society that why his stories still get told.
The Romeo and Juliet Company in rehearsals
Get the Chance works to support a diverse range of members of the public to access cultural provision Are you aware of any barriers to equality and diversity for either Welsh or Wales based artists or specifically writers?
Theatre is a reflection of life and every life is different.
Not every life is white.
I recently tweeted #walestheatreawardssowhite which was the case (and my frustration at the time) as the last three awards now since 2015 have had all white winners in all the acting and directing categories. I would like to delve deeper into my reasons for this. I think Alexandria Riley this year was the first BAME nominee in a lead actress category (and rightly so!) but that in itself is wrong because there is an abundance of BAME talent here in Wales and it isn’t being utilised. I obviously realise that this issue goes far beyond awards and is a reflection of something greater in society.
For me diversity and representation is so much bigger than just skin colour. It’s gender, sexual orientation, disability, social status and more.
We live in a multi-cultural world and this isn’t being represented on stage. We need audience members from different backgrounds and generations to go to the theatre and see theatre they can relate to. If we don’t see ourselves or our culture on stage (and screen for that matter) how are we meant to be engaged. If young people don’t see themselves represented on stage they won’t go to the theatre, if they don’t see themselves represented on TV they’ll turn the TV off. We have to show all walks of life to engage all people.
Every life is different after all.
To quote Viola Davis (who is an actress I am hugely fond of)
“The only thing that separates women of colour from anyone else is opportunity:you cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there”
For minority actors to be considered for awards they have to be cast in productions. So it stretches to the casting directors, directors, theatre companies to be imaginative and widen their casting pools. Think outside the box when it comes to casting. BAME playwrights to write more stories so their voices are being heard. Their voices need to be heard for the work to be made. And once the work is made they can be in contention for things like awards.
Connor in Bird, Sherman Theatre/Manchester Royal Exchange
It’s the vision of bold people like Directors Yvonne Murphy, Rachel O’Riordan, Elise Davison and Casting Directors like Sophie Parrott that allow me to stand here today fulfilled with the opportunities I’ve been given so far in my career.
Directors Yvonne Murphy, Rachel O’Riordan and Elise Davison
It’s the vision of these people and many more that break these boxes and allow diversity and representation to flourish. They don’t see risk, all they see is talent. And we need more people to think on that same wavelength for real change to occur.
Diversity has become this big taboo as of late and all I see it as is the ‘why cant’. Why can’t Iago be a black actor?(which has happened now to some criticism) why can’t Juliet be a disabled actress? Why can’t James Bond be an actor of colour? or Doctor Who be a woman?
Talent is everywhere in all shapes and sizes. So we have to make an effort to go and seek this talent out. Look for it. Everywhere.
Young people are the next generation. The next generation of voices to be heard. The next actors, directors, playwrights and producers. If they don’t have anything to relate to when they watch the arts then how can we inspire them to be the next generation of change? We have to inspire them. We have to empower them and by doing that we secure a fighting chance for a diverse and equal future in the arts.
Do you feel the situation is the same for English speaking Welsh actors?
I feel there is a lack of diversity for English speaking Welsh actors especially on TV but I feel it’s different from Welsh language actors. I can’t comment too much as I’m not a Welsh language actor. But even in Wales there is more English speaking work being produced than there is Welsh speaking so Welsh language actors are already at a disadvantage.
If you were able to fund an area of the arts in Wales what would this be and why?
If I were to fund an area of the arts in Wales it would have to be showcasing new writing from younger talent of all backgrounds (say 18-25) as I believe they have so much to say about the world and at times not the tools necessary to get their voices heard. The fund would allow them to all come together in a space once a week for let’s say four months. Partnered with an arts organisation or producing theatre or even just a group of actors it would give them the tools to be mentored by experienced professional writers, hone their craft, get their voices heard and shake things up drastically with their take on the world. It also gives them the chance to hear their text spoken by actors and try new ideas out to see what works and what doesn’t. At the end of the four months the theatre would showcase their writing with a series of performances to paying audiences. It would give actors the chance to work on new, fresh writing and younger generations of writers to be nurtured and mentored along the way by having more established writers like your Gary Owens’, Katherine Chandlers, Matthew Bulgos, Kelly Jones’ and Nicola Reynolds’ running sessions with them about writing stories and what that entails. Ultimately it’s giving the next generation a great stepping stone into the industry and new voices are given a platform.
Writers Gary Owen, Katherine Chandler, Matthew Bulgo, Kelly Jones’ and Nicola Reynolds.
What excites you about the arts in Wales? What was the last really great thing that you experienced that you would like to share with our readers?
What excites me has to be its potential. There are such great companies and artists making great work at the moment like Gary Owen’s return to the Sherman with Killology, Hijinx and their unstoppable MeetFred, National Theatre Wales taking over Cardiff with the City of the Unexpected and the Other Room going from strength to strength with every show they do. Even smaller companies like Critical Ambition, Avant Theatre and No Boundaries are all striving forward and raising that bar. All this gives me confidence for the future of Welsh arts and for the next generation of artists in Wales because right now Wales is living up to its potential of being a beacon of influential, thought provoking work that will inspire and mesmerise audiences.
Tour Dates for Romeo and Juliet
Mold Theatr Clwyd 5-8 April
Llanelli The Ffwrnes 12 April
Brecon Theatr Brycheiniog 23 April
Cardiff WMC 27 April-14 May
Anna and I are in Thompson’s Park. The last time we were together here we were in school, in single figures and holding hands, plump little girls telling each other fairy stories under the trees.
I can’t get the memories out of my head.
But we cannot reminisce for long as the Verona College classmates of ’63 sport their straw boaters and burgundy blazers and bound across the turf towards us. Rowing, fighting, slipping in the mud, the cast takes Shakespeare’s teenage drama and hurls it into our faces. Narrated , compered, signed, sung and spoken – every aspect is communicated with a robust concern for comprehension.
Tybalt played Toby Vaughan and Ania Davies as Nell your friendly Access Prefect taken by Jorge Lizalde Cano.
And the compere is masterly. Her hold over events is complete. Perambulatory it may be, drifting it is not. A neat conflation of original text and twentieth century conversation makes for an irrepressible production.
The acting is good. Romeo is ardent; the lads lusty and exuberant; the lasses witty and charming. Juliet is perfect. She is the most expressive and believable Juliet I have seen, maturing easily from silly schoolgirl to tragic heroine.
Lord and Lady Capulet are, in turn, pompous, funny, angry and very married – both to each other and to their roles in life. Lady Capulet, as pretty in pink as the girls in their ballgowns, is a clown – comic and tragic, Mercutio in a frock.
Nurse. Ah. The school nurse of school books and boy, she is splendid in her cape and boots. The buffoon, the go-between and the butt of jokes. Well-played, indeed. We wish her well in her romance with the Friar! We feel for her at the end.
Truly Shakespearean, this multi-talented and multi-tasking troupe of players understand that the more we laugh, the more we will cry; that life is a glorious, terrible muddle, however well-flowered is your pump.
Choose a sunny day and join in! And do buy a programme – and a college sweater!
Event: Romeo and Juliet, a promenade performance
At: Thompson’s Park, Cardiff
Playwright: Shakespeare, originally
Producer: Beth House
Director: Elise Davison
Theatre: Taking Flight Theatre
Seen: 6.30pm, 17th June, 2016
Reviewer: Helen Joy for 3rd Act Critics
Running: Romeo & Juliet will tour all over Wales, in beautiful outdoor spaces