Pros: The company tried something new.
Cons: The acting was very varied. At times the show felt too shouty and too rushed.
I have seen Shakespeare done a million different ways, from traditional Elizabethan dress to modern versions complete with hoodies and BMXs, and everything in between. However, I had never seen the ‘bare Shakespeare’ style of Merely Players – no set, no costumes, just the text – so I was definitely intrigued. The idea is that the company perform a Shakespeare play for one night every month (the next is Macbeth), hoping that the reasonable price and the lack of stuffy period costume will bring in a wider crowd.
One problem with getting people to see Shakespeare is that it’s too long, so this production is sliced into two manageable hour-long chunks. The issue here is that Merely Players don’t cut much of the text and instead hurtle through it at an insane pace. This is a strange decision given the company chose to pare down the technical elements in order to focus on the language.
The foundation of the show, the unique selling point of the company, is the concept of “simple Shakespeare”, no sets and no costume. I would argue however that the cast do have costume. If the company wanted to focus on the text, they’d go for a neutral costume that everyone wore – white shirt and black trousers for example. But as it is, the characters are costumed as the actors playing them. There are a select few (The Prince, Montague) who choose to give a vague nod to their characters in their clothing choice. Rather than mattering less, the costume becomes distracting. However, having no set works well, especially in the round.
The performances themselves are a mixed bag. Hannah Ellis is a strong Mercutio, both “laddy” and menacing. Emma Blackman as the Nurse puts forward a measured performance, ably moving between bawdy comedy and pathos with a light touch. Sophia Alexandra has some good moments as Juliet but she is a little manic. Friar Lawrence (Robert Myles) has a good voice and uses it well, but many of the others cast members spend a lot of the play shouting.
The direction of the play is less than convincing, with the audience interaction that runs throughout the piece becoming tiresome quickly. The show falls into the trap of many in-the-round productions: trying to acknowledge all sides of the audience at once so the actors become spinning tops in the space.
This being said, there are some wonderfully different moments in the piece including Gregory (Stephen Leask) singing beautifully to an (out-of-tune!) guitar in the ball scene. Also, the build-up to the Nurse’s discovery of a “dead” Juliet is played for laughs (and thanks to Blackman’s skill, she gets them). I also feel it’s important to note – because this isn’t easy to do – that Tybalt (Chris Pybus), Romeo (Simon Grujich), Juliet and Paris (James Peter-Bennett) were all very good at playing dead. And no, that isn’t some snide remark on their acting skills, just that after very emotional death scenes, they are able to hold their chests steady.
Romeo and Juliet is one of my favourite Shakespeare’s, even if I don’t love the production I’ll still enjoy the language. I was also very encouraged to see a packed house early on a sunny Sunday evening when most Londoners were greedily soaking in the warmth. Mainly however, I was pleased to see Shakespeare being done in a way I hadn’t seen it done before. Because even if I didn’t exactly thoroughly enjoy it, I love seeing the four-hundred year old text being given new life by practitioners experimenting with it.
Written by: William Shakespeare
Directed by: Scott Ellis
Produced by: Paul Lichtenstern for Merely Players
Box Office: 020 7258 2925
Booking Link: http://thecockpit.org.uk/show/merely_macbeth
Booking Until: Merely Players are back at The Cockpit with Macbeth on April 20th.