Helix Theater, Dublin
Reviewed by: Kaitlyn Culliton
In this rendition of Romeo and Juliet, a group of contemporary actors scrambles to put together a rehearsal of the play in a theater haunted by the ghost of Shakespeare, who agrees to act as a director. The frame story allows for a dynamic Shakespeare-lecture experience combining live theater, music, power point, discussion, audience participation, and a packet of notes available to students after the performance. The result is a completely non-conventional pedagogical approach that, while not catering to Shakespeare traditionalists, manages to engage the secondary school audience in the text of one of the plays on the Junior Certificate in a comprehensive educational experience.
The critical scenes of the play are performed by a four-member cast (exclusive of the voice of Shakespeare that interrupts to offer insights throughout the performance) and glossed by audience-inclusive discussions on the plot. Romeo and Juliet (Cian Kinahan and Marie O’Donovan) have great onstage chemistry, playing both the star-crossed lovers, and amateur actors developing a crush-made-awkward by the romantic contexts of the performance. They complete each other’s sentences, using this trope in burgeoning relationships to co-author student essay suggestions: one making an observation of the play and the other providing textual evidence. With Luke Barry and Martin Condon, offering counterarguments and unique interpretations of other characters, the diligent student will walk away with a few well-supported test answers.
If the actors do well to balance their roles as performers and educators, it is not due to the assistance of a compliant audience. Perhaps a decent contemporary mimic of Shakespeare’s groundlings, the easily-distracted, energetic, and boisterous crowd is kept engaged with bawdy humor, fast-paced scenes, and a balanced approach to comedy and tragedy. The crowning achievement of the performers is managing to wrangle the attentions of a full house; they earn enthusiastic screams of approval and a standing ovation that rivaled the cheers of sporting event spectators for the Act 2 Scene 2 balcony scene by having a male audience member in costume deliver Juliet’s lines—it’s a rare reaction to early modern drama. While the light-hearted version of the play does cause audience giggles at Juliet’s death, limiting the full implications of the sometimes harrowing fruition of the lovers’ final destinies, the performance purposefully rejoices in reading Shakespeare as an accessible part of popular culture. It successfully calls to question the manner in which teachers can reach new generations of scholars, making Shakespeare not simply tolerable, but an enjoyable part of canonical curriculums.