Because of the show’s emphasis on audience choice, Owl Eyes has chosen to send two reviewers to capture different experiences of the show. Each review will have its own rating.
Montague Review – Joanna Bowman
I think there’s probably a very good production of Romeo and Juliet waiting to happen in St Andrews. It’s probably waiting to happen with pretty much the cast of BoxedIn Theatre’s first production. Director Oli Savage’s note in the programme made it clear that ‘part of the point’ was that the audience was going ‘to miss things’. However, what I didn’t expect to miss was the story of Romeo and Juliet or the story of Tybalt or – despite trailing them like an unwanted shadow – even that of Benvolio and Mercutio. Theatrical innovation, particularly in a small theatre world like that of St Andrews, is always to be applauded and Savage has undoubtedly attempted to do something notably different from other productions. But, immersive theatre is always a tricky beast. Even the most interesting immersive theatre companies – Punchdrunk; You Me Bum Bum Train – split opinions, perhaps because of a simple fact: audiences are uncontrollable.
With a clear nod to the work of Punchdrunk we donned masks – blue for Montague; red for Capulet – and were brought into The Stage in small groups. After hearing the prologue (well spoken by Gabriele Uboldi and Georgia Luckhurst), we were deposited in front of Romeo (Caitlin Morris in her finest performance in St Andrews to date). Here was the first problem – indicative of the overall issues with the production – as I was in the first group of ten people I had to stand waiting for the show to
begin properly while hearing the final couplets of the opening speech over and over again. As continued throughout the play, scenes were marred by the next scene starting over the top of them. Genuinely moving moments – Tybalt’s death; the Nurse’s monologue – were interrupted by the next scene starting or a new sound effect reverberating through the space and 100 people running to the next bit. Although we were able to follow whatever bits of the story we wanted, this was made difficult when lines were lost to people moving or the next scene happening loudly over the bit you were focusing on.
However, some of the choices Savage made over the course of the production added their own problems into the mix. In theory making Romeo a woman and queering the central relationship makes perfect sense. They can’t be together because their families hate each other. They also can’t be together because Verona frowns on anything outwith the ‘norm’. To me, having Romeo and Juliet as a same-sex couple makes sense. With this in mind then, what doesn’t make sense – if we are led to assume that part of the reason Romeo and Juliet can’t be together is an insidious homophobia in Verona – is queering the relationship between Benvolio and Mercutio. Despite the chemistry between Mercutio (Daniel Jonusas) and Benvolio (Jared Liebmiller), I couldn’t reconcile this queering with the overall narrative of the play.
Savage has clearly worked hard – and strikingly effectively – to bring out strong performances from his cast. Emily Hoyle shone as Friar Laurence, aware throughout not only of the tragedy about to hit but also her inability to do anything about it. Ellie Burke stole her scenes as Tybalt, just as Annabel Steele’s Nurse was moving and captivating in equal measure. The character work discussed at length in the various previews of the play has clearly paid off, and Savage ought to be praised for this. The crew must also be praised for their work: there was the potential for much to go wrong throughout the show, and all credit must go to Emily Hepher who stage-managed the show impeccably.
I am prepared to believe that the problems I encountered were as a result of poor choices I made regarding which scenes to watch. I managed to completely miss the fact Romeo and Juliet were married until they were rolling around on plaid bedclothes (no missed opportunity in aligning lesbians and plaid in this production); most of Tybalt’s death was obscured by a tall man’s head; I had no idea who Paris was until he died. However, and perhaps this is an unfashionable opinion, I think theatre is primarily about telling stories. Yes, immersive theatre seeks to hand agency back to an audience with regard to the narrative they are able to construct for themselves. But, in spite of strong performances across the board – many of the actors giving the best individual performance I have seen them give – I felt as if I was unable to find any strand that worked as a story. At its heart Romeo and Juliet is a bit silly and melodramatic, but crucially it is a story that hurtles towards its tragic conclusion, which sadly felt lacking from this production.
Capulet Review – Alexander Gillespie
Being told to “stay when you want to stay, move when you want to move”, is an enticing prospect; where in watching a typical show, you follow a preordained path, in BoxedIn’s production of Romeo and Juliet, the audience is given something both terrifying and exhilarating – choice. At its best, this choice allows you to create your own voyeuristic narrative, finding the secret ins and outs of the world of Verona. Yet while the ethos of the show was certainly based on the concept of empowering audience agency, the way in which the show was designed threatened to become restrictive at times.
The show was at its strongest when it felt like you were truly able to tailor your experience. Following the show, what stuck out in my memory most were the images of Benvolio (Jared Liebmiller) and Mercutio (Daniel Jonusas) having shots of tequila in the corner of Club 601, of Romeo (Caitlin Morris) tracking plastic love hearts across to Friar Lawrence’s (Emily Hoyle) cell, or Tybalt (Ellie Burke) and Capulet (Sebastian Bridges) butting heads in an aside during the ball. These little moments and details let you make your own narrative. I may not have watched Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as intended, but accepting that I couldn’t, I came at the play side on, seeing characters from a different perspective. I spent most of my time with Friar Lawrence, sitting with her, hearing the chatter of Verona in the background. It was an undoubtedly weird, but certainly brilliant take on a story that is so deeply part of our cultural heritage. By giving the audience agency, Savage enables a production which is less about the personal tragedy of two star crossed lovers. Instead this Romeo and Juliet was concerned with how tragedies are what happens when societies are blind to the consequences of their actions.
Performances were remarkably strong all around, with Ellie Burke’s Tybalt and Daniel Jonusas’ Mercutio being worthy of particular note. Despite her relatively few lines of dialogue, Burke dominated the stage as Tybalt, turning her character’s typical hyper masculinity on its head (much of the show was gender bent to good effect). Jonusas was a revelation, giving one of the strongest performances of the year – his Mercutio a wick burning too fast and too bright.
If anything, this aspect of the show could have been leant into more. Although the audience were presented with the option of choosing their own narrative, there wasn’t much to choose from. As it stood, you typically could pick between one of two scenes – which sometimes meant that you felt like you were missing out on major parts of the
narrative. Creating additional moments happening on the fringes of the main action could have offset this, allowing the audience to follow around characters who wouldn’t usually be on stage at that time. Outside of this, the show’s main problems were technical. Scenes that happened in parallel time frames, often happened physically in parallel, leading to sound bleeding over between the two. Weak projection in parts did not help in this respect. This said, the use of light and sound (with an original score) did add to the experience (although at times the score threatened to overpower the action).
There may have been room for improvement, but the sense of discovery in this production of Romeo and Juliet felt unparalleled in St Andrews. Choice is a rare thing here, and I was left wanting more.