Breaking the fourth wall with Oxford's innovative Creation theatre
Romeo and Juliet: Creation Theatre Company in front rooms everywhere
12- 23 May
Review by Jon Lewis
A Tragedy Written in the Cards
Some productions of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet see the pair survive, as with Lost Dog’s Juliet and Romeo, where they live into middle age, bickering. In Natasha Rickman’s Creation Theatre version, co-produced with the Watford Palace Theatre, the star-crossed lovers live in a sort of online Veronese Schrodinger’s Box, both alive and dead at the same time. Using the trickery of AI game play, audiences make binary choices with a click of a mouse that determine which scenes they watch, holding the future of the lovebirds in their own hands.
Initially, the audience selects whether to be a member of the Capulet or Montague family. This decision affects which characters journeys are watched and identified with up until the interval. I followed Romeo (Kofi Dennis) rather than Juliet (Annabelle Terry). A pair of tarot cards reveals the choices, overseen by Mercutio (Dharmesh Patel), the first character to die in the narrative. The warring families and friends are colour-coded red or blue, the style of the film mimicking the divides within the narrative.
It’s a nice conceit, having agency. In one of many examples of breaking the fourth wall, we’re offered a break-out opportunity during the Capulet ball, joining with another couple of audience members. I was placed with Benvolio (Harmony Rose Bremner) and Petra (Lola Boulter), gossiping to us about sex. It’s quite thrilling that the actors can see us and know our names.
Clever splicing enables multiple characters to inhabit the same stage, sometimes ghostly spectres as they overlap with each other, at times more distinct. To suggest intimacy when the actors are miles apart in their own homes, Romeo and Juliet kiss their computer screens; equally actors fighting plunge swords towards us.
After the interval, the production ceases to be live, with all scenes pre-filmed albeit in the same style. The technology failed in the interval, and I had to click on the link again. Strangely, I now found myself following Juliet, and feeling like a turncoat. Some audiences get an additional extra by scanning a QR code onto a mobile phone in some scenes which I missed out on. I found the live performances more engrossing than the filmed scenes, not least because the screen size for the show shrank in the second half.
With a large cast of Creation Digital Rep members, some familiar Creation actors and some new to the company, this is an ambitious show. Not everything works in Romeo and Juliet, a play very hard to get right but Creation have kept the flag flying like no other UK company for live performances during lockdown, always trying something new. As theatres and outside spaces open up again theatregoers won’t forget these innovations, made in Oxford.