Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Romeo & Juliet @ Victoria Baths, Manchester, 17.09.14

Set in the archaic beauty of Manchester’s Victoria Baths, Walter Meierjohann’s directorial debut with Romeo and Juliet for HOME’s site-specific season is a sight to behold. Situating the audience in the depths of one of the empty pools, the production successfully immerses them right from the outset with the two opposing families appearing intimidatingly above you from either side of the pool (in a moment somewhat reminiscent of Chicago's iconic Cell Block Tango).

The fact the director has used cinema as stimulus is immediately clear, with abstract moments dispersed amongst the action, heightened characterisation prevalent and an energised use of music throughout (in an homage to director Emir Kusturica). In addition to this the production recalls the modernity of Baz luhrmann’s vibrant film adaptation.

However, what marks Meierjohann’s adaptation out as unique is seeing all of the above and more brought to life before your eyes. A silvery bridge that is raised and lowered, the seductive, strutting, sequined dancers, the leather-drenched revelers, the voyeurism of peering in on an intimate moment – all of these things feel far more powerful when seen up close than they ever could on a cinema screen. The production excellently navigates and embraces the raised stakes and challenges that promenade theatre can offer, asking the audience to travel with the story, to continually commit to the Meierjohann’s world and Shakespeare’s words.

The production is also decidedly youthful – the couple’s age is something that can often be forgotten when reading, but not here. Romeo (Alex Felton) and Juliet (Sara Vickers) are well cast for this: their fresh faces, fashion sense, body language, earnest expressions and unselfconscious emotions depict teenage life perfectly. The result was an emotional intensity, heightened sense of tragedy and feeling for beauty that was perfectly suited to Romeo and Juliet, and was only amplified by the wonderful staging and setting.

Speaking of which, although one could argue that the venue itself is the star attraction – Victoria Baths are a Manchester icon, inherently atmospheric, full of drama, beauty and sorrow – it did not overshadow the stunning decisions that have been made with both design and direction. The euphoria of them soaring the length of the pool on a shared swing without harnesses was positively contagious, and perfectly depicted the elation and risk of falling in love. The echoing expanse of the Gala Pool, reserved solely for the final crypt scene and lit by candles, was truly spectacular and alone makes this production unforgettable.

Romeo and Juliet made my heart soar causing me, as all good theatre should, to reflect on my own experiences, of youth, angst, and love with an added theatricality and beauty on an epic scale. A fantastic first effort from Meierjohann that has me already excited to see what he and his team at HOME will do next.

Words: Megan Griffith

Images: Graeme Cooper

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