views from the gods

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Romeo & Juliet: A Plunderphonica
The Bread & Roses Theatre
4th November 2014


Publicity image for Romeo & Juliet: A Plunderphonica

Photography provided by The Bread & Roses Theatre

As one of the world's greatest love stories, Romeo and Juliet has been performed in every style imaginable. Some of our favourites include an immersive 1920s version set in a speakeasy and a silent commedia masked version fused with concert piano. Never let it be said that the London fringe circuit is short of ideas; director Simon Jay and composer Matthew Reynolds have still managed to put their own spin on Shakespeare's classic with their plunderphonics version of the classic tale. If you've never heard of plunderphonics, it's a sound collage made by merging and adapting existing recordings to result in a new composition (and yes, you do learn something new every day).

This 90-minute show (interval included) is really quite experimental. Romeo and Juliet is set in a modern art gallery, with opposing paintings and brushes representing the divided families. The tale is told through a series of short scenes, where the two-person cast (Menno Kuijper and Miranda Shrapnell) interpret the story through movement and dance. Barely a word is uttered; instead the plunderphonics soundtrack adds voice to the performance.

The plunderphonics is certainly interesting and one of the standout features of the production. I'm no musical expert, but I was impressed by Reynolds' blend of rap, jazz, sci-fi, romantic film score, wartime tunes and various voices. In total, this all amounts to hundreds of audio extracts. The most prominent of the voices is an old-style RP BBC commentary running throughout the show, essentially making it a television news report. This helps to blend the whole soundtrack together and harks back to WWII bulletins - an effective reminder of the divide between the Montagues and Capulets. Nevertheless, despite the successful soundtrack, there was the odd time in the second half where the speakers went a little strange and the sound effects were occasionally out of sync with the acting.

Jay's untraditional take doesn't end with the plunderphonics. As we witness the story of their fated romance, Romeo and Juliet dance with strings, gas masks and a painting. While some parts are more effective than others (I'm not too sure about the strings myself), this is certainly a novel representation of the story. In keeping with the theme of clashing genres, the dancing mixes different styles, although it is always contemporary in feel. Both performers are strong and the dances get better throughout the production, leading to a wonderful finale. However, Kuijper deserves a special mention for his energetic solo, which is really a league above the rest.

As neither actor speaks, the narrative has to be carried through movement and expression. While some parts do feel a little am-dram at times, it is fair to say that both cast members put in a decent first performance. For much of the show, Kuijper's Romeo is a clumsy romantic. This is a role he plays well, although some of his facial expressions do seem a little underdeveloped at the start. However, when fate takes a turn for the worse, he really comes into his own, even reminding me of David Tennant at times. In his brilliant solo dance, his anguished eyes certainly have a glint of the Doctor about them. Shrapnell is your typical Juliet - light-footed, beautiful and giddy with love. Shrapnell is good in this role, but it's wonderful to see her talent as she switches to the distressed girl, running through the audience with a painting of her lost lover.

This is a quirky production, which blends sound, movement and art. While the company's claim to recreate artwork from Klimt, Emin, Pollock and Escher is a bit of an exaggeration, the set design is interesting. From the stage littered with newspaper and magazine cuttings to the haunting photos of woodland crosses, everything hints at the chaotic, tragic love story we know so well.

Incidentally, if you don't know the story of Romeo and Juliet, a) I don't know why you're reading this site and b) you may struggle to follow this play. Without any previous knowledge of the basic plot line, this unusual representation will be largely incomprehensible at times. But if you know the tale and you have a taste for the surreal, it's an intriguing show.

Romeo & Juliet: A Plunderphonica ran from 4th to 9th November 2014 at The Bread & Roses Theatre.

Clapham High Street (Overground)

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