The Everyman Theatre is currently staging two of Shakespeare’s best known plays, Romeo and Juliet, and Twelfth Night. Nothing unusual there you might think. Although given the fresh and vibrant productions they’ve recently brought to Cheltenham, you might think it’s a little out of character...
…and you’d ordinarily be right. Except The Watermill Theatre productions of these well-loved classics are anything but ordinary. Featuring a multi-talented cast of actor-musicians, live music and bawdy humour are skilfully weaved around Shakespeare’s prose, breathing fresh life into something so well known that it can become a bit, well, predictable.
Arriving at Twelfth Night, I was momentarily surprised to see the cast up on stage singing some classic 1920’s jazz. Had we become those latecomers that we normally tut at? Thankfully, they were simply warming up the audience with some live pre-show music. Some theatregoers ended up dancing with the cast to smooth and sultry versions of Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington. Similarly, pre-Romeo and Juliet, we were treated to street dancing and exciting renditions of Ed Sheeran, The Hooziers and a sing-a-long version of Blackstreet’s immortal hit ‘No Diggity’. Perhaps a first for Cheltenham although hopefully not a last!
I won’t bother recounting the stories as you likely already know them. Instead I’ll just say that, although brief and not technically part of Shakespeare’s original script, the pre-show sessions pretty much sum up the plays. The cast are all young, superbly talented and ultimately having fun together; one moment they are singing, dancing and playing their way across stage, the next they are delivering performances that wouldn’t be out of place on the Royal Shakespeare Company stage.
Perhaps even more importantly, on the night we saw Romeo and Juliet, there was a large school party in front of us. They behaved brilliantly for 3 hours, clearly enjoying themselves, and all without a screen in sight. To improve on the original sense of drama, comedy and romance, in an innovative and contemporary style, whilst making the sometimes impenetrable language accessible to all, is a real achievement.
It could easily have been a disaster. Instead the live music adds poignancy, heightens the drama and injects pace to propel the audience along. It is a testament to the cast, script and director that it is brilliant, both as a production of Shakespeare, and in its own right. Whether you like Shakespeare straight laced or on its head, don’t miss out on these fantastic shows.