CoLab Theatre attempts to update the eponymous tragedy of the star-crossed lovers and merge it with the northern 90s dance and trance craze, but in doing so completely miss the core concept of the story and lose their audience along the way. Montagues & Capulets is a story of war, but not of love.
Rave culture is not the typical setting for Romeo & Juliet. An abandoned warehouse; double denim and tracksuits; being slipped acid in the middle of a mosh pit. But this is a story about gangs, territory and how you can’t choose who you fall in love with. In theory, the premises align. In practice, there are a whole host of problems with this immersive contemporary version.
The audience are split into the clans – are you a Montague or a Capulet? After the first few minutes, it doesn’t really seem to matter. Everyone is taken through different tunnels into the main room of the warehouse, which doubles up as a bar, fighting ground, balcony/ garden (for the most famous Romeo & Juliet scene) and crypt to end the show. There are multiple other rooms, none of which are clearly marked out. Yet some of the key storytelling action occurs in these rooms – Juliet argues with her father Capulet about marrying Paris and secret messages are passed between the lovers. These are sub-plots that some of the audience manage to witness, breaking away from the main crowd who remain by the bar, hitting each other with foam swords in the “ongoing war” between the houses. Some parts are seemingly missed out altogether – is Romeo kicked out of the masked ball? Is Paris told by Capulet that he shall marry Juliet? Do Romeo and Juliet consummate the marriage?
Audience participation is encouraged, but swiftly abandoned when interest isn’t immediately generated. Team Montague are told to infiltrate the Capulet’s domain and find clues that point to the murder of Montague’s wife. Team Capulet are told to find Romeo once he is exiled by the Prince – a mafia-style gang leader that rules the warehouse with an iron fist and poorly attempts to intimidate the audience with a threatening presence. But the message of inclusion isn’t pressed hard enough at the start of the experience, so the audience begin reticent and end bored. The premise of giving free reign to individuals can work, but key elements of the story must be reenacted with everyone present, or the narrative thread is quickly lost among the rave. We are told that we can change the story if we wish, but uncertain and shy, we stand back and watch Mercutio get stabbed, Romeo retaliate, and Juliet take the poison. Are we meant to intervene and break this up? Are the cast capable of improvising if we change the fate of the star-crossed lovers?
For the majority of Montagues & Capulets, the audience wander round and disengage. With a strong, attentive cast, there is the chance to whip everyone back up into a frenzy and carry them through the dialogue. But this cast are simply not up to scratch – they intersperse Shakespearean language with modern improvisations, which only serve to indicate their inability to remain true to the script. The delivery is on one level, mainly loud – as such the subtleties of Shakespeare’s text are completely lost. Members talk over each other, interrupting storylines and diluting poignant points of prose so that the audience can engage once more in a battle with a carnal frenzy. This is lazy storytelling, pandering to base desires in order to placate and pacify those observing.
CoLab Theatre are not new to this, they have created immersive experiences all over London with much greater success in the past. The failure of this production can easily be attributed to a lacklustre audience, but that would be an excuse to mask some underlying conceptual misalignments with Montagues & Capulets.
Montagues & Capulets is playing CoLab Factory until 27 April 2017. For more information and to book tickets, see the website.