“this talented young company knows when to change gear and transport us to the essence of Shakespeare’s words and emotions”
Brighton, 1964. Whitsun weekend becomes a landmark for an explosion of youth identity during riots between the tribal subcultures of mods and rockers. Setting the mood for Exploding Whale’s new version of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, it encapsulates the pent-up teenage energy and passion which simmer under the surface, ready to boil over in rage or jealousy or love. It may be a timeless tragedy, but this production pinpoints an era of adolescent unrest and disobedience, clearly identifiable in its music and fashion.
As we sit on the beach in deckchairs, the two families appear. Dressed as expected, the use of colour gives them an added stylish unity – rockers in jeans and leathers with a touch of bright red, mods in fashionable black and purple. Detailed lighting and sound (Louis Caro) punctuate scenes and enhance the ambience. The first half lends itself well to its new environment with the initial street fight and the Montagues gate-crashing the Capulet’s party (cue for music) but it takes a while to tune into certain updated roles due to the mixture of accents and unforgiving acoustics, especially in the round. As the narrative is not always clear, we are initially drawn to the more accessible personalities and by the time they are at the Capulet’s, eyes are drawn to dancing partners, Mercutio and the Nurse. However, this is followed by a beautifully powerful balcony scene which seals the play’s integrity and tone. In the second half, with some arresting and intrepid acting, it is the core of Shakespeare’s story which takes over from the 60s landscape until, towards the end, only the music reminds us where we are.
Ben Woodhall’s direction is an original but astute understanding of the script; there are novel takes on the characters, inventive staging and well-shaped dynamic flow. Teddy Morris plays a very real Romeo with a combination of sentiment and honesty which, coupled with Bebe Barry’s shining yet intense innocence as Juliet, gives a fresh and truly moving performance of a classic moment. In supporting roles, Billy Dunmore’s excellent portrayal as Mercutio is immediately charming as the fun best friend but equally bitter as he lies dying; Alex Harvey (Tybalt) brings a raw aggressive presence, Joe Bonfield gives Friar Laurence a contrasting solemnity and in a somewhat fishwife version of the Nurse, Lily Smith creates an interesting and vivid new persona.
With its own youthful energy, Exploding Whale succeeds in presenting an enjoyable and fully-fledged ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Yes, the show does have its foot-tapping moments as promised, but this talented young company knows when to change gear and transport us to the essence of Shakespeare’s words and emotions.
“plays actively on the comic element with quick-witted interaction and lively, farcical staging”
Bursting with ideas and inspiration, Exploding Whale’s retailored model of Shakespeare’s most frequently performed comedy reveals a wealth of new talent. Hidden beneath Katzenjammers’ Bierkeller, Katzpace is an interestingly-located, if somewhat incommodious studio space and home to this vibrant young theatre company.
The modern corporate setting of this adaptation is an excellent choice as a venue for social intrigues as well as a vehicle for the shifting of traditional gender roles. In this version, Don Juan is a female executive and several minor characters have become women in the workplace. Director, Ellie Morris, creates beautifully contrasting moods while the story unfolds. As they arrive for work, each personality is immediately established and the spirited pace allows for an atmosphere of bustling office banter. However, it is never a mistake to take time over establishing complicated backstories and plots; even for those familiar with the play, the energy of the opening rushes through the initial set up as we learn the latest line-up. The first half plays actively on the comic element with quick-witted interaction and lively, farcical staging, though sometimes the quality becomes patchy and we lose the tension and conviction of the characters. In the second, the drama comes together and we experience an unusually powerful sense of tragic relief, sobering the mood for a dose of reality.
In this redesigned cast, the two central couples find a perfect blend of tone and attitude which place them in the present day. The nonchalant pretence of Talia Pick’s Beatrice complements Gregory Birks’ carefree, comic front as Benedick, breaking eventually in a touchingly affectionate scene. Ava Pickett as Hero and in particular, Julian Bailey-Jones as Claudio, grow with passion from starry-eyed young lovers, experiencing the powerful feelings of betrayal, anger and grief. Octavia Gilmore portrays a manipulating Don Juan and James Irving as Hero’s father, Leonato, asserts himself in the second half. There is an enjoyably quirky Dogberry from Charlotte Vassell, but many of the secondary roles are changed or omitted and the distinction and balance between their updated versions is not always clear.
A room below a beer cellar is certainly a change from one above a pub but it has its practical drawbacks. Visibility is sometimes obscured by a couple of pillars and made uncomfortable by the glaring, low spot lights. Technical aspects aside, Exploding Whale’s production captures the fundamental essence of these two couples, exploring the timelessness of their relationships as well as putting more women on the stage. The clever, contemporary setting and details, dynamic direction and wonderful acting make this a ‘Much Ado’ which spans our emotions and entertains at the same time.