SquidInk Theatre’s production of Romeo and Juliet at the Keble O’Reilly this week places the tale of gang warfare in a female offenders unit: HM Prison Verona. It is a production that promises to challenge audience preconceptions of the Shakespearean canon, as well as advance a conversation about women in the Criminal Justice System.
The prison setting lends itself well to depicting gang violence and claustrophobia, and the almost exclusively female cast is of paramount importance in encouraging a reevaluation of characters that have become ‘stock’ for many, such is the ubiquity of Romeo and Juliet. I was shown two of the most famous scenes: the Queen Mab speech, and Romeo (Lorelei Piper) and Juliet’s (Emelye Moulton) encounter at the Capulet party, which was a brave choice from the crew, but one that, in general, paid off. Consumed by her imagination in reciting the Queen Mab speech, Romeo and Juliet’s fellow inmate, Mercutio (Lucy McIlgorm) momentarily escapes from the quotidian misery of prison life. Viewed in the prison context, one may also perceive Mercutio as a character who has experienced a past trauma. An advantage of staging Shakespeare is that the audience is likely to know the plot, and watching McIlgorm’s performance reminds you of the great loss that Mercutio will be to the play when he dies.
I was initially wondering, in a predominantly female cast dressed identically in white shirts and grey tracksuits, whether characters would be easily ‘recognisable’, but this was no problem. Admittedly, I was speaking to director Conky Kampfner about casting before the preview, but McIlgorm’s performance could only have been attached to Mercutio, and contrasted well with Romeo’s forlorn complaints. Capulet’s (Imogen Edwards-Lawrence) entrance to the party, parading proudly from the balcony, signposted the character’s dominance at this stage of the play.
The prison setting does not necessitate the dazzling set design of the party scene made famous by Luhrmann’s film. This makes the task of creating the correct atmosphere more challenging, with responsibility falling entirely to the actors to create the excitement. More energy was perhaps needed to convey the revels, but to portray decadence in a prison context is difficult. This production remains true to the prison setting, and the result was a depiction of prisoners relaxing in each other’s company, rather than a wild party scene, but perhaps this was intentional in encouraging the audience focus on the claustrophobic conditions of the setting.
This did not mean that there was a lack of creativity in use of the set. Props were sparse: a bunk-bed, barbed wire, steel beams, a table, and a translucent curtain. Tybalt (Lara Deering) seethes with anger from behind the table when she notices Romeo, whilst inmates dance seductively either side of her. Romeo and Juliet have their first encounter behind the translucent curtain. This worked particularly well in its suggestion that, from the beginning, their love does not belong to quotidian world. It is certainly not of the world that this production depicts. References to “holy palmers” and “saints” in the moments before their first kiss seem particularly incongruous in this setting, where the omnipotent figures are gang leaders. This is underlined by Capulet’s lingering on the balcony as she enters.
One issue lay in the transitions between scenes. The noise made in moving the table after the party scene distracted from the moment when Romeo realises that she has just kissed a Capulet. It was a shame to have attention taken away from Piper’s performance. However, this was a very minor flaw in a promising production. The cast seemed very close, and this sense underlined the ensemble aspect of the play, and reminded me of how multiple characters share responsibility in causing the lovers’ deaths. Kampfner was keen to underline her interpretation: that this is a play where young people are let down by their elders. Even in their isolation, there was very much the feeling in these scenes that the old, arrogant and ignorant were stifling the protagonists’ chances of happiness.
SquidInk Theatre have produced a show that unafraid to challenge audience preconceptions. It is ambitious, and promises to deliver.