“an intriguing adaption and a creative and unique piece of digital theatre”
Two households, both alike in dignity. Those famous lines are how Shakespeare’s most well-known tragedy usually begins. Except in this interactive online version, I find myself on a Zoom call alongside a great many households, watching live as the fight kicks off between the two feuding families.
One of the key selling points of this fun and fresh reinvention of a much-loved classic is the interactive element – where the audience can make decisions about the characters’ fates. For my first choice, I have chosen to be a Montague, and so I begin the play witnessing the initial street brawl between the two sides and then dashing off to see Romeo (Kofi Dennis), Mercutio (Dharmesh Patel) and Benvolio (Harmony Rose Bremner) preparing for their night at the Capulets.
How to stage a play on Zoom is a question many theatre companies have grappled with over the past year and designer Ryan Dawson Laight and director Natasha Rickman have come up with a worthy and bold solution. Performing individually, the actors swim onto brightly-coloured ghostly backgrounds, where characters overlap each other and become both big and small. After a short adjustment period, it soon becomes immersive – an ethereal and inviting experience.
As we enter the party and meet the Capulets, the story moves swiftly on to another Zoom call, where our hero meets his Juliet (Annabelle Terry), but is also pursued by the watching eyes of Tybalt (Sebastian Capitan Viveros) and Lord Capulet (Graeme Rose), setting the familiar chain of events in motion.
Then it is back to the company’s website, where the choice-making element of the production truly begins, interspersed with pre-recorded scenes. As well as the decisions – laid out on tarot cards – there are also valiant attempts to engage with the Zoom audience and to add a bit of personalisation to the performance. These additional bits are interesting, but it is hard to add very much new material to such a well-trodden story and I am often unsure how much impact each decision I make has.
I hope it is not a spoiler to say that, despite my choices and the combined efforts of Sister Lauren (Clare Humphrey, as a gender-swapped Friar Lawrence) and the nurse (Katy Stephens), I do not manage to save the star-crossed lovers. But there are hints throughout the production that a more discerning viewer might be able to…
Along with the staging, the combined efforts of music and sound (Matt Eaton) and movement and choreography (Simon Pittman) work well for the fight and dance scenes, but perhaps less so for the love scenes. The actors largely adapt happily to the digital realm, with some stand-out performances. Kofi Dennis as Romeo is particularly good, embodying all the angst and passion you would expect from the young hero. And Dharmesh Patel brings an ominous, almost-creepy air to Mercutio that works surprisingly well. Support from the rest of the cast (Giles Stoakley, Vera Chok, Viss Elliot Safavi, Lola Boulter and Andy Owens) also adds depth to the performance.
With all of its additional elements, this Romeo and Juliet is an intriguing adaption and a creative and unique piece of digital theatre.
“The show is something you fall into enjoying, like a warm bath”
Anxiety. Depression. Paranoia. Little could ClodHopper Theatre, the creators of Clown-Hearted, know when devising the piece just how relevant its themes would be in the pandemic-hit atmosphere of late 2020.
Like many current shows, Clown-Hearted is about mental health. The stage is initially set with one down-hearted clown (Leonie Spilsbury) in a highly covetable cloud-patterned onesie, surrounded by scattered boxes representing the various positive and negative pieces of her mental life.
A theatrical exploration of mental health is something that could easily become very dark or clichéd, but this is a work that offers something altogether different. Our clown begins by shuffling the boxes about, making some light gags and setting up a few visual metaphors. The piece takes a little while to fully get into, but soon after the entrance of the second clown (Owen Jenkins) it really gets into its swing.
Asking for help from an omniscient virtual assistant (subtitles are provided), the two clowns take a journey into self-care. The only dialogue coming from either Alexa or Siri is nice ironic contrast to the open simplicity of the characters. Through limited but effective props and their own actions (movement directed by Julia Cave) the clowns experiment with several mood-boosting activities, including exercise, meditation, and exploring nature.
Devised by Spilsbury and Jenkins, the show’s structure may seem a little formulaic, but it works – leading the way into an emotional odyssey that is wonderfully and entirely unpretentious. The performance doesn’t labour over the metaphors set up early on, but instead moves forward into each joyful skit with new energy, ending in a place that is far more wholesome than expected.
The show is something you fall into enjoying, like a warm bath, although there are enough witty and on-trend references from the virtual assistants to make the audience realise the work is clever, too. And of course it is funny, but in a welcoming rather than exclusionary way, with humour everyone can enjoy.
The work of the actors is complemented by the sound and lighting (Will Alder) and most significantly by the musical choices. Many familiar songs feature – from Ponchielli’s ‘Dance of the Hours’ to ‘Under the Sea’ from The Little Mermaid – and each of these tunes perfectly suits the play’s comforting and uplifting tone. There are also some advantages that come from having had the show filmed, as the camera work (Joseph Ed Thomas and Peter Moreton) gives us some nice close-ups of the actors’ facial expressions that serve to emphasise some of the jokes.
Watching Clown-Hearted is almost an act of self-care in itself; the capers of the clowns are soothing and easy to watch, and there is real warmth brimming out from both of the performers. While you sometimes wonder if some of the clowning would be better if it was more exaggerated, perhaps it is the very easy-going nature of the two characters that makes the show work so well.
In a time when so many of us know what it feels like to struggle with mental health, the play is the perfect pick-me-up and well worth spending the time watching.
Reviewed by Vicky Richards
Online via Applecart Arts until 23rd October
Previously reviewed from Dazed New World Festival 2020: