YISF 2015: Romeo & Juliet

As the York International Shakespeare Festival is now underway, Unknown review The Flanagan Collective’s all female cast Romeo and Juliet which staged at the St. Olave’s Church.

The Flanagan Collective’s Romeo and Juliet is a product of genius. So inventive and creatively invigorating one soon forgets its most challenging aspect; an all-female cast. The eminent love story is so firmly rooted within a social, and sexual, context that it can be difficult for a modern audience to shrug off preconceptions of the play. Nevertheless, through their bold engagement with this challenge, The Flanagan Collective have delivered in their production a truer breed of Shakespearean love than I have ever seen performed.

Romeo and Juliet is, of course, a play of love; young, virginal and reckless. Youth and energy were a focal point of this production. Even before the famous lines began to flow, the cast invited audience members into St Olave’s with beat-heavy music and a flurry of party hats, streamers and balloons. Children and cast members broke into impromptu balloon sword-fights and games of tag, leaping over pews to smash through the fourth wall before the play had even begun. It was as if we’d forgotten that we were about to light the fuse on a devastating romantic tragedy. It’s a bit of a cliché that Romeo and Juliet misses being a comedy by a matter of minutes but The Flanagan Collective encouraged the audience to catch that brief comic spirit of the play, which is all too frequently restricted to the Nurse, Paris, and occasionally Mercutio. Rather, this production shone a light to argue just how young Romeo and Juliet are and just how fun it is to be that young.

It was refreshing, endearing, playful and downright sexy

A particular highlight was the young lovers’ first meeting. The narrative foreplay that Shakespeare wrote so beautifully into talk of saints and palmers was manifested literally through a flirtatious hide and seek chase between the pews. It was refreshing, endearing, playful and downright sexy. Romeo and Juliet, like a pair of rebellious schoolkids on the bus, shared a first kiss whilst sat on the back row of the pews. This highly energised chase of excitement grew into a sophisticated and brave physical sequence for the married lovers’ wedding night; a scene too often tossed aside with pyjamas and bed hair. Rather than conforming to the typical emphasis on the “violent delights” of a young couple’s passion, The Flanagan Collective approached this scene with a perceptive and beautifully choreographed illustration of their growing emotional connection.

The company’s boundless imagination has transformed the ornate St Olave’s Church into their creative playground. The cast frequently dipped into six part choral harmony, which resonated in the space with stunning renditions of songs from a number of Shakespeare’s plays. The final scene borrowed beautifully from the image of Baz Luhrmann’s famous church altar, with the main lights fading to cast the actors in the gentle glow of candlelight. The effect was neither ominous nor ghoulish. Bathed in darkness, this scene lit only by Juliet’s crown of candles, gave an intimate focus to the lovers’ tragic conclusion. Of course, I should have seen this coming, but giving the audience confetti to throw on the newlywed Romeo and Juliet as they walked down an actual aisle was inspired.

Photography by James Drury
Photography by James Drury

Go for the all female interpretation, stay for one of the most engaging renditions of this play you will find in performance right now

Alongside Romeo and Juliet, strewn upon the obligatory pile of casualties in this production was the character of Paris. However, he was ousted from The Flanagan Collective’s final scene completely. While this lent more tragic focus to the production’s star-crossed lovers and left a much cleaner final tableau (with the omission of a desperately hapless Paris stabbed at the foot of Juliet’s tomb), it rendered Paris an even more two dimensional and peripheral character than the play makes him out to be. Paris seems to demand a go-kitsch-or-go-home performance. Whereas some productions have played up the clingy discomfort with which he woos Juliet to hilarious effect, it felt as though this production didn’t quite know what to do with him (or, rather, with her).

Making cuts as they had done to the text does invite such fatalities, yet they procured a slimline production in which the focus fell largely on a near flawless portrayal of young love. The Flanagan Collective went above and beyond with their interactive set and sparkling vibrant soundtrack. Combined with an utterly vivacious physical performance, this created a most faithful communication of the text’s youthful, passionate impatience. Go for the all female interpretation, stay for one of the most engaging renditions of this play you will find in performance right now.

*Romeo & Juliet is playing from the 7th-23rd May at the St Olave’s Church.