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Romeo with plenty of pop but no heart to boot

PUBLISHED: 16:14 14 October 2009 | UPDATED: 17:24 16 August 2010

SONY DSC

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There are many ways to bring Shakespeare to life for modern audiences, writes Mark Campbell. At the Erith Playhouse recently, Romeo and

There are many ways to bring Shakespeare to life for modern audiences, writes Mark Campbell.

At the Erith Playhouse recently, Romeo and Juliet director Ahmmad Makaddar took inspiration from the brash 1996 film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes.

I applaud the theatre's attempt to do something different with this familiar love story. Several characters got the chop (including Romeo's mother, Lady Montague), some received 21st century makeovers (an apothecary became a drug-dealing hoodie) and many scenes were accompanied by loud pop music.

After a very peculiar false start, in which Mercutio's death is shown in the style of a 'Coming Up...' preview, followed by closed curtains for several long minutes, the play proper got underway.

According to the programme notes, Makaddar had sought to make it 'relevant' to today's theatregoers. What director, I wonder, chooses to make a play irrelevant?

Plastic daggers thus represented contemporary knife crime. Featureless modern dress (excepting a monk in medieval habit) implied an 'imaginary Verona' that is 'similar to the present'.

With a co-writing credit by Makaddar himself, it was clear the director considered Shakespeare's original in urgent need of revision.

But despite characters being cut and scenes shortened, the evening still lasted almost three hours.

Pop music provided the backdrop to many a scene, although the meaning for its inclusion was often lost on me. What I do know is that it was very hard to hear the actors above the loud vocals.

In this sense, the performers seemed subservient to the look and sound of the play, rather than forming an integral part of it.

Elementary stage techniques were sadly lacking.

Key scenes and important dialogue were too often delivered upstage and away from the audience, while poor diction (too fast, too quiet or delivered without inflection) maimed some of the Bard's most poignant lines.

Joshua Watson and Nicola Milner made a likeable, if rather stilted, pair of star-crossed lovers.

Martin Gilby spoke with authority in the role of Prince Escalus, while Steve Padgham gave a lively performance as Mercutio.

In smaller roles, Robert Killalea, Judith Brace and Hugh Wootton headed a small cast that would have benefitted from greater numbers to suggest the gang warfare element implied, but never shown, in Makaddar's interpretation.

The play gathered pace in its closing scenes, and the various fights were well executed, but for me this Romeo needed less pretension and more passion in its telling.

* The next production at the Erith Playhouse is The Memory of Water by Shelagh Stephenson, from 19-24 October. Tickets: 01322 350 345.

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