Romeo and Juliet, Everyman Youth Theatre, Cardiff Open Air Theatre Festival

July 8, 2024 by

Youth theatre can be easy to dismiss, but there is a particular joy to it: especially when it engages with the classics, there is something deeply reassuring about witnessing the love and understanding of the text young people put in these performances, and there is a hope for the future of theatre – an art form plagued by funding cuts and by a vague sense of anachronism – to be found in the vitality in youth theatre productions. It feels entirely coherent, then, to close my experience with this year’s Cardiff Open Air Festival with Everyman Youth Theatre’s take on Shakespeare.

Celebrating its 25th birthday this year, Everyman Youth is a true agent for good in the cultural landscape of the Welsh capital, engaging with young people aged 11 to 18 and producing a long list of high-quality stage productions in the past. For a number of years now they have been gracing the stage of the Open Air Festival with their own Shakespeares: past highlights include A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night. This year it’s the turn of Romeo and Juliet, a work that is arguably a perfect fit for a youth theatre production, given its themes, its tones, and the extremely young age of its protagonists.

A number of strengths to this production became apparent almost immediately, some of them in the form of pleasant surprises. First and foremost is the level of understanding of the text from pretty much every single cast member, including the youngest, which is reflected in the delivery: the easiest pitfall of doing Shakespeare is to fall into a flat recitation of the pentameter’s natural lilt – actors of much greater experience have fallen victims to it – and so it was a real delight to see such a young cast place emphasis on all the relevant bits, display an innate understanding of the best places where to put a pause, resist the temptation to lean on the rhymes to get the meaning out of the verse. Not all were equally proficient at it, but all understood that it needed to be done, and how it needed to be done: again, something that it is not obvious to expect even from professionals. Second, especially in the first half, before the tragedy in the plot takes over, it was good to see an appreciation for the comedic parts in the script: particularly as far as the character of Mercutio is concerned, but Romeo and Benvolio also got their fair share. Thirdly, rather than a philological staging of Shakespeare’s work, the production injected some contemporary elements, mainly in the form of a carefully curated soundtrack: but it didn’t just stop there, and some touches were especially clever, such as turning the masked ball in the Capulet house into a rave complete with mosh pit.

What few difficulties arose were mostly due to the technical aspects of the staging. The very same soundtrack, in particular, felt somewhat intrusive in places, mostly because it was not always perfectly timed: the first few bars of a song sometimes smothered the last words of a line, and it is a tribute to the young actors that they were not deterred by it and stuck to their characters in spite of it. There was also some clever use of off-stage spaces, which generated a modicum of chaos, but often for good rewards. The idea of splitting the roles of Juliet’s nurse and Friar Lawrence into three separate parts worked well in some cases, and less well in others (especially the latter). Overall, however, the play was well cast, well delivered, and most importantly, well understood and well loved.

Perhaps Romeo and Juliet should always be performed by young actors: the feelings it embodies only ring true when expressed by very young people, and would feel exaggerated – bordering on ridiculous, in places – if channelled by older characters. It is a play that has been staged so many times, and in so many forms, that it is hard to find any freshness in it; one might be tempted to wonder if it should be left alone for a while, if it has been overly exploited to the point of feeling trite. Putting it in the hands of a youth theatre company is in a way going back to its very roots, at least as far as the roots of feeling are concerned. Refreshing, therefore, may well be the right word. A well deserved round of applause for Everyman Youth, then, and a good occasion to hope that similar initiative will continue and multiply, and show the charm and the magic of theatre to young people for many generations to come.

Images: Cressida Ford
Until July 21

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