Romeo and Juliet – Review – York St Olave’s Church
Romeo and Juliet – Review
St Olave’s Church, York, May 2015
by Jen Grimble
Romeo and Juliet has enthralled global audiences for over 400 years. It remains one of the most widely performed plays in literary history. So perhaps the hardest task when adapting this classic, is learning how to convey mystery in a story that is so often retold.
It was this mission that multi-genre art group, The Flanagan Collective, intended to complete. The team, known for their unique style, were keen to move away from traditional, male-dominated adaptations. By altering the gender of the play’s male characters, the masculine imbalance is neutralised. So this Romeo and Juliet features an all-female cast – even Romeo is a woman.
The beautiful interior of York’s 15th Century St. Olaves Church hosts the play. It is a building that predates the literature, and seems an apt location. No set or stage is necessary since every inch of the church is utilised during the performance. The gorgeous Grade 1 listed building moulds itself around the players, as it alludes to the drama ahead.
A party is underway as the audience takes their seats; there is an immediate sense of recklessness in the air. Modern music rings from a sound system, directly contradicting the surroundings. The spectators are invited to participate in the first unscripted Act of the production. Then, as the play’s famous opening prologue is read, the distinctive adaptation begins.
The cast, each playing multiple roles, transport us to Verona, where the Montagues and Capulets are at war. This proves a problem when our heroine, Romeo Montague (Emma Ballantine), falls madly in love with Juliet Capulet (Amie Burns Walker). After promising themselves to one another, the pair discover that each belongs to their rivals’ family. Realising that acceptance of their love will not happen, the couple marry in secret.
This stimulates a series of catastrophic consequences. Firstly Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt (Hannah Davies), murders Romeo’s best friend, Mercutio (Besley-Garrigan). In retaliation, Romeo stabs Tybalt and flees. Meanwhile, Lady Capulet (Sarah Davies), still in the dark about her daughter’s whirl-wind romance, pressurises Juliet into marrying wealthy kinswoman, Paris (Yoshika Colwell). A distraught Juliet seeks solace in Friar Laurence (Holly Besley-Garrigan), who concocts a dangerous plan that could devastate both households.
As the sun sets outside, the interior of St. Olaves transforms into a majestic, candlelit tomb, as the story reaches its dramatic climax. The music, composed by Jim Harbourne and Edward Wren, draws significant intensity to the finale. The lyrics, a compilation of Shakespearean sonnets and Twelfth Night quotes, reverberate through the building. The cast offer flawless harmonies, like a warm knife gliding through butter.
With divine female melodies and feet slapping against stone, this is a Shakespearean play with guts and originality. All six actresses prove themselves to be endlessly talented. Amie Burns Walker and Emma Ballantine shine in their gutsy, sincere performances. Alexander Wright directs with immense control and drive. From a low-key set design, to the mesmerising portrayals of his cast, Wright makes Shakespeare look easy.
Be assured, you will never see another play quite like this. It is alive with imagery, music, and feminine detailing. The cast bring to life a story as old as the theatre itself, with honest and passionate expression. Through humour and sorrow, modern music and authentic script, this adaptation is persistently watchable. Your hairs will stand on end because this is a performance with guts and wild abandon. Book your tickets before they all disappear.