HOME’s Romeo & Juliet has proved a sell-out production – and last night, we found out why.
When HOME announced its site-specific season, all three plays looked unmissable. But there was something about Romeo & Juliet, set in Victoria Baths, which caught people’s attention. Rumours of stunning sets and intense musical numbers elevated anticipation further, and so it was with breath bated that we waited for the lights to rise and the story of the star-crossed lovers to unfold last night.
As the play began, the two warring families emerged from the changing cubicles on either side of the “Females Pool” before wrestling on a metallic bridge that bisected the space. The ambition of the play’s staging quickly became apparent as the platform folded up on itself to become a wall of disco lights, with a dance-floor below. In fact, moments of astonishment such as this recurred throughout the evening, with a ceiling-high swing, an enormous neon cross and a final vault scene all adding to the drama.
The actors brush past you, delivering dialogue you can feel as well as hear
Although the staging stands tall in this production of R&J, the cast are not lost in its shadow. Romeo (Alex Felton) and Juliet (Sara Vickers) look the part – young, fresh faced – while their performances were tender and tormented. Rachel Atkins as Nurse, both doting and slightly dotty, filled the space with her energy, while Damian Myerscough portrayed the serenity and struggles of Friar Laurence adeptly. Yet this was not a night of stand-out performances, but rather one of a complete cast working together to create a world in which the audience was totally immersed.
Credit for this has to go to Walter Meierjohann; this is the first piece he has taken on personally since becoming Artistic Director of HOME, and it is a serious statement of intent. He foresaw the possibility of intertwining a story set in fair Verona with the fading beauty of the Baths; his execution of that vision marks him out as a very special director indeed. The choice to hold the final scene in the highly decorated Gala Pool will be remembered. The setting proved breathtaking (literally; there were audible gasps from the audience).
When it comes down to it, though, it was the oldest ingredient of them all that stole the show: Shakespeare’s words. Although we’ve all heard them many times before, somehow Shakespeare’s prose still feels new and invigorating. You can’t help but laugh as Benvolio claims he “will make thy swan a crow” or feel your heart wrench as Juliet kisses her dead lover’s lips hoping that “some poison yet doth hang on them.”
A contradictory yet complimentary mix of the cinematic and the immersive, HOME’s Romeo & Juliet offers grand statements – witness Juliet cutting through the air on a swing – alongside intimate and unexpected moments, such as the times when the actors brush past you, delivering dialogue you can feel as well as hear. The play has brought Baths to life and reminded us that the Bard is still the best.