‘The audience wear masks?’ I was assured this was correct by the producer as she smiled knowingly to herself. This was the first of many surprises. The next came when I had put on said mask and was exchanging sheepish glances with other, similarly masked, figures in the semi-darkness of the antechamber; unsure whether we were about to witness a play or embark on some strange rite of initiation. From behind us came the sound of raised voices and before I could grab my notebook I found myself shunted, rather unceremoniously, through a door by a surly Lord Montague. One glance at his enraged face convinced me it was probably best to cut my losses and leave pen and paper behind- along with many of my assumptions about what constitutes theatre.
The rest of that strange, wonderful, intoxicating performance is a little hazy. On reflection I feel like Alice returned from her tumble down the rabbit hole into the daylight of the everyday world. Those of you familiar with Shakespeare’s original, compulsory if you’re going to enjoy this production, will have already noticed that my coverage does not begin with those immortal lines, ‘Two households both alike in dignity’. This is not because of editorial cutting but instead a process that can best be described as a brutal savaging, in the most positive sense, of the canonical text. The aftermath of Tybalt’s death is presented before the fatal duel, the masque where Romeo and Juliet first cross paths degenerates into the rowdy fight between the two households on the streets of Verona. Narrative time and space are subverted into a whirling ballet that enthrals and bewilders the audience in equal measure. The overwhelming sense is one of a chaotic dance between the borders of brilliance and madness, literally as well as figuratively when I saw a fellow audience member seized and forced to join in with the dancers at the Capulet ball.
However the well known lines give the listener something to hang on to and prevent the performance drifting into incoherence. This is something worth stressing. The production will not be an evening of light entertainment; you should come prepared to have to work to get something out of it and also prepared to participate. Most of the time there are at least two scenes being acted out simultaneously in different parts of the room; it is the exception rather than the rule for the audience’s attention to be focused on one point.
This usually occurs during particularly climactic scenes and lead to some excellent exploitation of light and colour to emphasise the shift of focus. The masks grant members of the audience a feeling of anonymity which is reinforced by the constant interaction with the cast who will frequently look quizzically at you or speak their lines over your head. The actual role we were meant to be playing seemed ambiguous: sometimes stage props, other times shadowy apparitions visible to one character and not to others. Personally I was quite pleased with my performance. I managed to hold the steely gaze of Tybalt for a few seconds and smile encouragingly at Benvolio who winked back during one of the comic scenes. But to move on to the real actors all of the cast put in a solid performance with special mention going to Brian McMahon who produced a dark yet comic take on Mercutio and Lindsay Dukes for her poignant and compelling Juliet. I would strongly recommend this experience to anyone who is looking for something different in the Oxford Drama scene.
Tuesday – Saturday 6th Week