Content Disclaimer: This article contains suicide themes that some readers may find distressing.
As a person who adores the work of Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet being a favorite, I was in conflict when wondering how I would find the reimagining of the classic tale. Relocated to the Birmingham summer of today, the play redefines Shakespeare’s original and transforms it into something completely different, but just as brilliant. Amid the harsh realities of urban gang culture, two young lovers are brought to their tragic deaths by events they cannot control. He evokes the same feelings as his counterpart, both raw, compelling and emotional – I was not disappointed.
Created in collaboration by Rosie Kay and with a troupe of dancer-choreographers skilled in contemporary classical, street and Indian dance styles, the piece was both inspired and fueled by Kay’s work within the city’s communities. To ensure the play stays true to its Birmingham roots, Kay also did research with students at Nelson Mandela School in Birmingham, families and youth affected by crime, and South Asian choreographers.
In this diverse recreation, instead of romanticizing the tragedy of teenage suicide, we are presented with a desperate story in which each character loses something dear to them and remains vulnerable. The focal point of the play revolves around the harsh realities of gang violence; what I admire about Kay’s version is that they refuse to water down the real issues in our daily lives. Instead, we see the pain and damage these groups cause, hitting audiences exactly where they should.
The diversity of the city is reflected not only in the choice of its castings but as well in the choreography as in the score, mixing a palette of styles from various horizons. The dance translates into a mix of contemporary ballet with brief moments from the street, nods to classical Indian dance and energetic ensemble work. Music serves to complement this feeling of multiformity, which in itself is a hybrid of classical hip-hop, contemporary and Indian dance. The styles flow naturally from the multiethnic dancers themselves. The diversity of the cast and choreography means that the center of gang rivalries moves away from the almost expected topic of race or heritage and instead shines a light on other factors, such as peer pressure and drug addiction.
The opening scene is alive in its rush for activity, and the use of bright “street” clothing only underscores it. The dancers are recognized as rival gangs, the Capulets and the Montagues, in the urban setting of Birmingham. However, it’s only when the play gets really moving that we start to understand the intended characters. The street party, a clear take on the Capulet Ball, is dynamic and energetic, and the chemistry between the dancers is undeniable. One of my favorites was the performance by Rosa (Ayesha Fazal), her movement was both captivating and unique which made her stand out in the crowd of dancers.
While this is a mind-blowing performance from all of the dancers, the piece truly begins when Romeo (Subhash Viman Gorania) and Juliet (Mayowa Ogunnaike) meet. The contrasting styles of the dancers only emphasize the beauty of their union, proving that despite their different origins, love conquers everything. While she holds her form firmly, her movement is fleeting. However, according to tradition opposites attract and when they finally come together they are aligned both in soul and in movement, reflecting the actions of the other and becoming one union. Romeo and Juliet’s relationship is conveyed in vivid detail, only found in those who truly understand and love their job. There is a genuine tenderness between the two as they merge into one, and the inevitability of their ending becomes deeply sad as we watch their relationship blossom.
Without a doubt, the most striking part of the play is after the tragic deaths of the central characters. The use of the body bag combined with the audio tape featuring a police report on a suicide takes the play away from fiction and brings it into today’s reality. It was at this point in the room that I had to sit down and consider what was going on in front of me. While the topic of suicide in any form is scary, watching teens kill themselves on stage is the most brutal and effective way to get the message out in the home.
A beautiful creation in its own right, the play is almost hampered by its attempt to follow Shakespeare’s tale. For those who adore the original piece and have never seen it, the modern shot was confusing at times, and audiences had to try to piece the puzzle together rather than figure out what was right in front of them. It was not an easy play to follow. Despite this, the time and effort put into the piece was evident in every aspect – every carefully crafted individual detail. It captures what is at the heart of Shakespeare’s play and makes it real.
At the end of the night Romeo and Juliet was really a pleasure to watch. It turns the classic around and turns it into something unsettling but beautiful. The public is invited to consider the events which have just taken place on stage and to understand that they are not fictitious; these are events that happen too often in real life. Kay is blunt but honest in her description of teen gang culture and that is exactly what is needed because it is not covered often enough. Pieces like these are crucial in starting the discussion that will enable change. It may be too late for Romeo and Juliet, but it is not the case for those who are on the streets now.
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