While gender-balanced productions are less of a rarity these days, Merely Theatre takes this to the next level – and then some – ensuring gender-blind casting for their plays. Directed by Scott Ellis, Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet feature at Greenwich Theatre this week, each play alternating between evening and matinee performances.
On the evening I attended (for Romeo and Juliet) the audience was full of people of all ages, all eager to see Merely Theatre’s latest endeavour. From the word go, the actors fearlessly tackled each scene with clarity and verve. Using only a five-strong cast (which on this occasion featured four women) and a minimum of garment changes, the actors took on multiple roles, each with distinct personalities and characteristics. Events in the play that everybody knows such as the balcony scene are given a fresh approach, as are the quotable speeches which feel spontaneous and sincere.
Emmy Rose’s Juliet is spirited and full of heart – certainly not passive or demure, while Luke Barton’s Romeo is every bit her match in temperament. Meanwhile, Tamara Astor often steals the scenes with her humorous demeanour as the Nurse. As Mercutio, Hannah Ellis is exuberance itself, with robust physical humour and ready to lead Romeo into mischief. However, it is as Capulet that she demonstrates her dramatic ‘acting chops’, at first eliciting our sympathies as a parent bewildered by a child’s ‘ungratefulness’, only to later channel undiluted anger at Juliet for ‘disobedience’. So much for love and choice being part of the equation for marriage… That leaves Ffion Jones, who in undertaking some of R&J‘s lesser-known personalities, turns potential cyphers into legitimate characters.
One observation about the text which has always been present, but I’ve never noticed before… During the scenes where Romeo is withdrawn because of the deaths, he’s told on more than one occasion (and I’m paraphrasing here!) to ‘man-up’ – as if indulging in moments of reflection and melancholy have no place in a ‘man’s’ behvaviour. The fact it was female actors playing male characters saying this dialogue made the statement stand out – a subliminal indication of ‘gender programming’ that has always been with us. I might not have picked up on this in the text if ‘conventional’ casting had been used. Long may Merely Theatre continue to flesh out the nuances and observations in the Bard’s writing.
© Michael Davis 2017
Romeo and Juliet (and Twelfth Night) run at the Greenwich Theatre until 22nd April 2017.
CAST: Ffion Jones: Friar Laurence/Paris/Montague/Sampson
Luke Barton: Romeo/Prince/Gregory
Tamara Astor: Benvolio/Nurse
Emmy Rose: Juliet/Tybalt
Hannah Ellis: Mercutio/Capulet/Apothecary