Romeo / Julia, Dir. Mariken Bijnen, Simon Rowe, Diane Elshout. The Moving Arts Project, June 27, 2015, Steve Bikoplein and October 17, 2015, Stadsschouwburg, Amsterdam.
Review by Kristine Johanson (University of Amsterdam)
The strains of reggae, the smell of a barbecue, dozens of children, a director high-fiving members of the audience. The atmosphere at the Steve Bikoplein, in the Transvaalbuurt neighborhood situated in the midst of Amsterdam’s rapidly gentrifying Oost (East), was one that, unfortunately, I had never encountered while waiting for the start of a Shakespeare play, let alone Romeo and Juliet (Romeo / Julia). A few months later, when I saw the Moving Arts Project’s (MAP) re-staging of their semi-professional production at the city theatre, the Stadsschouwburg, the atmosphere was necessarily changed (no barbecue), but it retained the feeling of familiarity, community, and welcome that characterized the set-up of the June performance. That set-up was vital to this production, which drew on that sense of community and connectedness to emotionally and personally engage its audience.
Indeed, throughout these performances, at the levels of text, music, and direction, the production sought – and found – ways to connect explicitly to its audience, many members of which, given their age, had likely never seen Romeo and Juliet before. (And who assumed I had never seen it either: When a young man in dark contemporary and Renaissance clothes walked onstage, forlornly picking petals from a rose, an eight-year-old girl at the Stadsschouwburg turned around to inform me: ‘That’s Romeo’.) While the directors often took textual liberties with the play, their changes and re-imaginings were deployed in the name of their larger purpose: connection. One of the biggest laughs of the June and October performances came when Benvolio counseled Romeo, ‘As Shakespeare said, “examine other beauties”’, and Romeo demanded: ‘did Shakespeare ever feel such misery?’ Rosaline became Rosalinde, a life-and-breath character laughing at and cruelly dismissing Romeo and longing for Paris (‘I want to stalk him but he doesn’t have Facebook’, she confided to a friend). To (no longer Friar) Laurence’s initial monologue was added a new speech about the rejection of polarities, of black/white: ‘better gray, or rainbow’, he suggested. The Montague parents were cut entirely, suggesting that the directors weren’t interested in highlighting the traditional patriarchal conflict offered by the play. Young actors (aged approximately seven to twelve) took on a choric role as journalists who reported on the sword fights, deaths, and Romeo’s banishment, about which they asked the audience for their opinions. Finally, that almost all of the lovers’ final lines were cut – including the final kiss – before the entire cast emerged on stage, highlighted how this production was interested in the play’s society rather than its tragedy. That was also clear from the production method and ethos of MAP, an artist collective. The directors cast actors from the neighborhood – some of whom were professionals, and others who had never acted before. The color-blind casting, too, helped to create a multi-ethnic society that wasn’t interested in a clash of cultures or racial tensions. The cast offered a range of performances, and Paris’s cheesy arrogance and Benvolio’s earnest friendship made a greater impression on this reviewer than the angst and emotional turmoil of the lovers.
The play’s privileging of societal construction and connection was clear as well from the music and dance additions to the play. Prior to Juliet’s first entrance, her two Nurses performed ‘Make the Bed’ (Maak je het bed op) to the beats of American trio Salt-N-Pepa’s hiphop classic ‘Push It’; during the ball, Rosalinde and two friends performed an Indian dance, complete with the impressive use of a hula hoop. These energizing additions were balanced by pathos: the production used Prokofiev’s famous ‘Dance of the Knights’ at various moments throughout the play, as well as a haunting west African song following the discovery of Juliet’s ‘death’ and during the procession to lay her body in the tomb. As I watched equal parts of the audience bob their heads along to ‘Push It’ as well as to Prokofiev, it became clear how this blend of cultures – east and west, north and south, ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’ – underscored the Moving Arts Project’s credo: ‘home made culture’.
The set design and staging also contributed to that community, ‘homemade’ feel, particularly in the June performance. Then and in October, colored wooden squares were both the literal and figurative building blocks of the set. These squares offered different ideas for the audience to connect to the action: ambition, power, recognition, peace, money, friendship, love, security, uprooting. For example, Paris climbed on top of the ‘money’ square to speak to the Capulets about his proposal to Juliet. In the open-air June production, the set was a simple but dynamic series of wooden frames and structures, serving as the Capulet house as well as the ‘Moskerk’ (Moskee-kerk, mosque-church) where Laurence tends the garden. The open-air setting, with the audience close by in bleachers, also meant that characters could interact with the audience and move through it with ease, bringing them physically into the world of the play. While performing the play in Amsterdam’s Stadsschouwburg was an important opportunity for the show and MAP, the fact that the production had to use the space, lighting, and set design for the Stadsschouwburg’s mainstage Medea worked against Romeo / Julia. In the massive, white space with a stage-wide video screen above the performance space, what was predominantly lost was an actual sense of space. Gone were the frames and structures, gone were Romeo’s impressive, dedicated acrobatics to climb to Juliet’s balcony. Interestingly, the October performance reverse-staged the balcony scene: from an audience balcony Romeo watched Julia below as she leaned forward on a few wooden squares. When they finally connected, Romeo reached down while Julia stood on her tiptoes, and they touched hands. Overall, the decision to use the entire stage space sacrificed the intimacy this play creates and needs, and it often slowed down the pace of the action.
Despite the tragic nature of this play, these performances were joyous productions, and crafted to be so. Again and again, Romeo and Juliet’s bonds of community were highlighted between actors but also between audience and performers, as the play was infused with modern language, music, and dance to extend Verona’s walls into the audience itself.