Southwark Playhouse’s Brixton-based Romeo and Juliet is part of their Shakespeare for Schools project. This famous Shakespearian tragedy of star-crossed lovers, plays out, not in Italy but in Brixton in 1981. With a soundtrack of the Specials, UB40, Phil Collins and The Selector, the play’s opening street brawl becomes part of the Brixton uprising of that year – but between the Montague Estate and the Capulet Towers.
Transplanting the story from 16th century Verona to 1980’s Brixton is a welcome attempt to move away from a traditional approach to staging the play. It is undeniably more accessible and “relateable” to a contemporary south London audience.
So this production is peppered with places, events and language that such a an audience would be familiar with. As well as witnessing a lively dance to the Specials, I definitely heard a very un-Shakespearian “get the fuck out of my pub” and “call a fuckin’ ambulance”.
While the concept and creativity are admirable, sticking with Shakespeare’s text yet mixing two very different times, places and cultures is an ambitious endeavour. And rather like the marriage at the centre of the drama, this is a union which doesn’t always work.
But you can forgive the occasional clunky and slightly artificial transition, because there is much to enjoy about this energetic and enthusiastic production. Shakespeare is always full of humour and bawdiness, and the cast and the director make the most of both. There’s some enjoyable slapstick and some genuinely funny twists on the original. The worst punishment to inflict on Romeo after for killing Tybolt, for example, is to be banished to Basingstoke. Juliet’s nurse in particular gives a delightfully comic performance.
It’s a well-paced production, with plenty of visual and verbal gags and interplay with the audience. It’s faithful in all important respects to the original, and the cast does very well to deliver lines and create characters – invariably more than one – which have to inhabit different time zones.
Most importantly it is still a tragedy. Romeo and Juliet, played well by Samuel Tracy and Laura Lake Adebisi, remain victims of the conflict between their respective communities and their story is first and foremost one of doomed love.
Bringing the genius of Shakespeare to life for a young audience in south London is a very worthwhile goal and a real challenge. Southwark Playhouse’s Romeo and Juliet has risen to that challenge.
I doubt whether a surprised Benvolio will be able to repeat the lucky bull’s eye he scored in the pub darts match on the night I went. But you should still go, see, and enjoy it if you can.
Romeo and Juliet runs until 5 February in the Southwark Playhouse, 77 – 85 Newington Causeway, SE1 6BD.
For further information call 020 7407 0234 or visit www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk