Friday, 5 May 2017

REVIEW: Romeo and Juliet at the Union Theatre

It can be argued, that homophobia in football is one of the last taboos in our society. Although significant efforts have been made by institutions such as Stonewall FC and Chelsea FC announcing the first LGBT fan group in 2016, there still remains the painful fact that not one player has come out whilst in the Premier League. Activists have encouraged players to come out all at the same time, or through campaigns such as #rainbowlaces attempted to change the culture of reception rather than place focus on the individual, but as the programme for Andy Bewley’s Romeo and Juliet reminds us the ghost of Justin Fashanu lingers. 

With this highly-charged and laudable backdrop, I was looking forward to seeing how the issue would be dealt with and what I might learn from a gay retelling of Romeo and Juliet in Southwark’s the Union Theatre. With Amy Warren (Mind Over Matter Theatre Collective) as Movement Director and Abram Rooney (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) this proffered an interesting premise for how the beautiful game might be woven into this age old tale of lust, conflict, youth and tragedy.

As the audience takes their seats the cast of thirteen are on stage, or rather, on pitch, as they mill around a green AstroTurf interacting loosely with one another and conducting their actor’s warm ups. The effect is noisy and mesmerising, and from the familiar opening lines of Shakespeare’s most famous prologue we are drawn into the action of a very new kind of Verona, which is now the two hours and thirty minutes traffic of our stage.

En masse the cast are vibrant, fresh and dedicated. Romeo is played by Abram Rooney, who leads the action with feeling. The love scenes between him and Juliet (Sam Perry) are tender, backed up with humour by a faithful Gabrielle Nellis-Pain in the role of Nurse. Paris is also well portrayed by Allegra Marland, in a smooth gender swap where Marland embodies a wag-like figure intent on her own trophy. Benvolio, a character known for his diplomacy, is played well by Celeste De Veazey, nicely embellished by the referee whistle he wears.

The first half of the familiar tale unfolds smoothly, however I start to doubt proceedings when Mercutio appears. For a start he is not dressed in sports gear; the reason for which is never made clear. Rather Jack J Fairley opts for a dandyish, hipster who aside from an awkward attempt at a mock homoerotic threesome, barely contributes to the gay storyline. It felt as though the notorious subplot of Mercutio’s love for Romeo was completely missed and similarly from Sam Wilson’s performance as “King of Cats” Tybalt, we got no sense of authentic motivation, or any subtle, genuine incentive of homophobia. As Shakespeare had laid out such fertile material this is surely a missed opportunity.

Unfortunately I didn’t get the sense that Romeo and Juliet’s struggle was any
harder because of the society they were apart of, or feel that football was used meaningfully for anything beyond aesthetics. Although Steven Rodgers gives energy to his performance as Capulet, his wrath did not appear to link up to his son’s gay relationship or (despite the stagey prop of a plastic pint glass) offer any insight into attitudes towards masculinity in football. For example, the relationship between Capulet and his wife could have been embellished, to reinforce heterosexual supremacy and give feeling to Juliet’s struggle. 

A significantly better beginning, without real fuel the second half of this sagged. Considering Bewley’s excellent choice of subject matter, this could have been better.

Review by Anna Williams

Rating: ★★
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