“Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight! For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night”
So my second Romeo & Juliet in a central London (but off-West-End) venue in a week but whilst this is a modern dress Romeo & Juliet, it wisely leaves alone from much else tinkering. Set in the grounds and gardens, and finally inside, The Actors Church otherwise known as St Pauls Church in Covent Garden, this is a fresh, thoroughly honest and intimate telling of this familiar tale by Iris Theatre which offers a beautifully direct connection to the material. Fierce from the outset, there’s bottling, punching and flick-knives by the dozen, the opening brawl leaves many of the cast spitting (fake) blood and covered in plasters and bandages for the rest of the show: there’s little holding back from the brutality of the violence endemic in this family feud. But likewise, there’s no hiding from the depth of emotion here as well; this production contains a pair of central performances in an utterly convincing portrayal of teenage lust and passion.
There’s a wonderful use of the nooks and crannies of St Pauls, a surprisingly calm environment enclosed on all sides by tall buildings and the hustle and bustle of Covent Garden. The audience is seated on benches for the longer scenes, but occasionally we wander to different areas to witness a rave in a garden complete with Bonnie Tyler dance routine, or snoop on the lovers in their hammock in a shaded corner, or in a brilliant moment, watch Juliet as she emerges in the window of one of the adjoining houses for the balcony scene. Then as we approach the final scene, we are invited into the church itself and it is a breathtaking moment: lit by hundreds of candles and a striking large blue neon cross, the air laden with incense, the bodies of Juliet and Paris laid on the altar, it is incredibly effective and atmospheric and demonstrates a superbly sensitive understanding of the opportunities provided by this venue.
There’s also a nice level of audience interaction, some people get their name called out as part of the guestlist for the Capulet masque and some people are prevailed upon to dance at the party; at the balcony scene, Romeo stands amongst us looking up and converses with us. It all adds to the intimacy of the performance, the haunting strains of Irish lament She Moved Through The Fair sung by different characters at different points just adds to the atmosphere.
As the star-cross’d lovers, Sam Donnelly and Laura Wickham are just superb, both turning in accomplished performances: Donnelly has a great gift for engaging with the audience, oozing charm and a natural affability that is impossible to resist and Wickham has just the right level of playful girlishness balanced with the growing awareness of the gravity of her situation. Their first meeting is played beautifully with the partygoers around them stuck in slow-motion as the lovers succumb to their first kiss: they are both gorgeous which helps, but the way they play the transformation of their teenage lust into something much more real and moving is a sight to behold, I reckon they are two names to watch out for. Domenico Listorti is also outstanding as a Russell Brand-inspired powerfully crazy Mercutio who is laugh-out-loud funny from the word go and painfully poignant in the refusal to accept complicity in his own death.
Even with a cast of 14, there’s some doubling up here in order to cover all the roles but it is done in quite an inventive way. Matthew Mellalieu opens the show as the variable Capulet, kindly at first but unafraid to use violence against anyone and quite the menacing figure, but then midway through he emerges as the kindly Friar Lawrence and turns in a sensitive, barefooted performance and continues to switch constantly between the two. Likewise, Robert Pearce starts off as the Prince, raging against the brawling nobles of his city but then quickly dragging up as the Nurse and pulling off an audacious, outrageous interpretation which has no right to be as powerfully moving as it is. Looking a little bit League of Gentlemen in a short wig and sensible long skirt and jacket combo which is probably from BHS, this Nurse is bawdy, highly flirtatious (she gets a real eyeful of Romeo in his boxers!), breathlessly flapping about and screeching for Simon Kent’s hapless Peter and it is often genuinely hilarious. So when the discovery of Juliet’s body comes, the pendulum of grand emotion swings heavily the other way and it is a heart-rending moment.
But there really isn’t a weak link in this ensemble and they do particularly well at demonstrating the unbreakable sense of camaraderie within these groups of men, one gets an inkling of why they believe “an eye for an eye” when brotherly love is this strong and it makes it all the more tragic. Plus you get to see someone give Romeo a wet willie which is possibly the only time I’ve ever seen this happen on stage! ON a serious note, their commitment to the performance was astounding despite, or maybe because of the inclement weather, Tybalt’s body lay out in the rain for ages, several actors worked barefoot, Juliet threw herself about in the mud, it just made it all feel even more real.
Special credit should go to the staff who shepherded us around quickly but kindly and who quickly erected marquees and dried off seats as it bucketed down, little touches like that help no end to improve the experience and when the spectacle on display is as good as it is here, then you will surely not be disappointed: book now for a unique central London treat.