‘Sexing up’ Shakespeare can be done well and with integrity
The Fringe Review
This innovative production intertwines Shakespeare’s text with contemporary language to allow literature’s most famous lovers to speak directly to a 21st century audience. Eloquently communicating to young people and seasoned audiences alike, it sets the universal themes of love and hate, youth and age, passion and responsibility against a soundtrack provided by a live DJ set from Virgil Howe. Michael Wicherek’s adaptation breathes vivid life into the heat and colour of Verona and the star-crossed lovers fighting against fate.
I was unsure what to expect from this adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Was it going to be excruciating ‘youth speak’, trying to appeal to teenagers at the expense of anything else, or was the play, condensed down into an hour going to lose so many of the nuances that I was going to leave feeling cheated? Modern adaptations of Shakespearean classics are so frequently performed, and so frequently awful, that my hopes weren’t high. Therefore, imagine my pleasure as Box Clever’s production filled me with delight, and restored my faith that ‘sexing up’ Shakespeare can be done well and with integrity, whilst still appealing to an audience of young people.
It was a cast of three, with an onstage DJ cum sound technician, who despite looking like a Restoration era dandy, managed to blend into the background until he was required. Romeo and Juliet were played by excellent young actors; Romeo (David Ajao) a black kid from Peckham – the wrong side of the river, and Juliet (Jessie Dubieniec) a white girl, pretty in pink jumper and trendy trainers. The third role was a kind of everyman – he played all the supporting characters from the nurse to Mercutio, as well as narrating the action where needed. This type of role is so challenging to get right, too much narration and it seems patronising, too many character shifts and it’s confusing or naff. Yet, thanks to the skilful adaptation, it was accomplished with great success. Remarkably, although you were frequently unsure what character the narrator was playing at any one time, it never mattered. He was likeable and clear – knitting the play together, challenging Romeo and Juliet’s youthful stupidity, and delivering the final stanza of the play with mournful aplomb.
The production was physical and lively – a sideways heart provided a climbing frame that was used to full effect. It made a great balcony and also allowed for the childish innocence of Romeo and Juliet’s love to come to the fore, as they hung upside down and swung about on it like little kids. What the company also managed to achieve was a surprisingly seamless interweaving of modern day language and original Shakespearean text. This meant that the story was clear and easy to understand, but the beauty (and educational value) of keeping the Elizabethan words did not get lost.
An excellent soundtrack underpinned the whole play – modern beats helping to engage in the teenage audience, and sound effects and live mixing being delivered by the onstage DJ. This production was undeniably cool. The actors in the company were young, and the tone of the piece was not trying to be excruciatingly up to date, which I think would have just been embarrassing. There was no excessive use of mobile phones, or ipads, and they didn’t use projections – all of which was the right choice, as it allowed the story, music and acting to speak for itself. I was constantly being reminded of Baz Lurhman’s 1996 film of Romeo and Juliet, and how much that appealed to me as a teenager. I believe that Box Clever achieved that same appeal onstage, proved by the many exclamations from young girls of ‘that was wicked’, coming from all around me as I filed out of the theatre.
Fringe Review – reviewed by Alice Booth on 12 March 2014