Review: First Encounters: Romeo & Juliet

Shakespeare’s epic tragedy is taken into schools, watched by Jessica Harris.

In a primary school in central Birmingham something quite special has been taking place. The highlight was the performance by the Royal Shakespeare Company of a specially edited version of Romeo and Juliet, but the performance itself was the culmination of a longer and deeper journey.

In advance of the Company’s visit, the four schools involved were given access to an activities pack. This enabled them to explore the play beforehand, and the children’s understanding of its story and themes really showed. Not only were some children involved in the production (as Counsel to the Prince they provided advice to the warring families of Montagues and Capulets and urged them to make peace with each other) but, without exception, the entire audience was engaged pretty much from start to finish. That’s 90 minutes of focussed attention by an audience of eight and nine year olds, without a break.

With minimal staging and with no special lighting, the production rests entirely on the skills of the actors and on their ability to convey emotional depth. The Company does this superbly, making the characters clear and relatable, and fully exploring the conflicts they face in Shakespeare’s story of clan rivalry and thwarted love.

The actors were audience-focussed from the outset, introducing the characters they played and asking the children to consider how they would respond if they were one of them.

And Romeo and Juliet is full of difficult choices, including the kind that children and young people will recognise from their own lives. What do you do if your family wants you to go in a direction that is not where your heart takes you? Does your loyalty lie with your friends, even if they act in a way you don’t think right? Who should you listen to in life?

Romeo, played by Campbell Wallace, and Juliet, played by Zensi Alleyne, are captivating as they encounter the overwhelming passion of young love. The conflicting emotions of the Nurse, played by Caitlin Drake, are fully recognisable, as she tries to both encourage and protect Juliet. Lord Capulet, played by Tyreke Leslie, is equally relatable, as he moves from anger to frivolity, and back again.

High energy levels keep the production moving – children everywhere will recognise the youthful antics of Romeo with his mates, Mercutio and Benvolio, and will enjoy the modernised music and dance of the masked ball. There are also moments of pure tenderness: Caitlin Drake’s rendition of the Welsh hymn Calon Lân as the young lovers wed is one such. Fight scenes have been cut down significantly. Together with the role played by children as Counsel to the Prince, this conveys the message that it is better to resolve issues by talking, rather than fighting.

First Encounters: Romeo and Juliet is directed by Philip J Morris and edited by Robin Belfield. It is touring schools around the country until the end of April, and is also playing at the Swan Theatre, Stratford until 30th March. For children, young people and their families, it’s a winner.

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Pics – Joe Bailey (c) RSC.