Taking a break from the search for “some sort of post-industrial site” for his planned version of Romeo & Juliet, HOME’s second site-specific production, director Walter Meierjohann, a newcomer to Manchester, went on one of the weekly tours of Victoria Baths, just like any other tourist.
On its opening in 1906, The Baths, with its deep green tiling, intricate mosaic floors and stunning stained glass, was declared “a Water Palace of which every citizen will be justly proud”. But more recently it had fallen on harder times, avoiding demolition after its closure in 1993 only after a determined fight from residents and supporters. Upgraded to Grade II* Listed status, it then won the first series of BBC’s Restoration and £5 million was raised to restore the frontage of the building, the glazed roof of the gala pool, and most of the stained glass.
“Suddenly it all clicked into place and I knew this was the setting we were looking for. There’s something in the space, a sense of faded beauty, of kitsch, of emptiness, of death that reminded me of buildings I had visited in Eastern Europe in the 1990s,” remembers the Dutch-born director, who became artistic director of theatre for HOME in 2013.
Suddenly the building itself became a key player in this thrilling re-imagining of Shakespeare’s oft-performed play.
“Together with my dramaturg Petra-Jane Tauscher,” says Meierjohann, “we felt that this could be a contemporary landscape which resonates with ideas in the play of family, patriarchy, duty, passion, religion, violence, pathos. From this we decided to very loosely set the world of the play in a fantasy criminal underworld in an unnamed city somewhere in post-communist Europe.”
Coincidentally or not, that somewhere echoes an experience a much-younger Meierjohann once had, a story a bit too lengthy and complicated to repeat here but so good that you should hear it yourself if you can at the free Meet The Director event with Meierjohann on September 30.
In any case, that “was simply a starting point,” Meierjohann emphasizes. “The production is certainly not a realistic representation of that world, rather the inspiration for something playful and theatrical. I guess we just shifted Verona a little further away.”
So you could call this version an East Side Story. A sober fellow like myself, of course, prefers to simply say that this is an absolutely terrific show, brimming with ideas and pulsing with the sort of life and invention which strongly suggests that the compelling Angel Meadow, the initial production from HOME, wasn’t ‘first time lucky’. As an exciting, clear, persuasive and populist (in the best sense) modern version of Romeo & Juliet, it’s no exaggeration to suggest that Meierjohann’s show is right up there with Baz Luhrmann’s lush and action-packed film.
Before the interval, all the action takes place in and around the drained smaller pool, which I believe once served as the ‘Females’ (as opposed to the ‘Males 1st Class’ and ‘Males 2nd Class’). Some of the audience are seated above the action throughout, others are down on the pool level before being moved up to pool-side in front of the old changing cubicles from which the rival Montague and Capulet crime clans emerge to challenge each other. I was part of the pool-level folk and subsequently heard some complaints about sight-lines and clarity of sound from those both above and below. But all I can say is that, whether by luck or judgement honed by many years of being a short-arse at promenade shows, I had no such problems at all, even with the South East European-inspired live music and choral chanting with which Meierjohann has peppered the production – an attractive adornment you’d imagine would only exacerbate the obvious acoustical problems in a swimming pool.
Romeo, as played by Alex Felton (seen not so long ago in the old Library Theatre’s closing production, The Importance Of Being Earnest), is an earnest youth, dabbling in music and, like many angst-ridden teenagers, clearly half in love with the tragic mythology of Kurt Cobain and his ilk. His inarticulacy in the balcony scene, meaning he resorts to quoting pop songs at Sara Vickers’ Juliet, is a typical bit of fun in a production that, before it all goes appropriately dark and deathly, seems to have a pretty firm grip on the idea. When Mercutio (Ncuti Gatwa) taunts Tybalt (Wil Coban) and the menacing Montagues, he, hilariously, quotes YMCA at them, for instance. Julia, a terrifically controlled and moving performance from Vickers, is a frail and touchingly vulnerable young thing, especially in the context of the menacing energy exuded by the likes of her father (Mark Jax) and the fishwife sexuality of Nurse (a broad performance from Rachel Atkins).
The closing scene in the Gala Pool is awe-inspiringly realized, an object lesson in how live theatre really can sometimes take your breath away. Try not to look at the sneaky camera-phone shots that were, inevitably, being taken and save yourself for a real ‘wow’ moment, is my advice. It’s typical of a rich and innovative production, brimful of delight at the sheer joy of live performance in such a remarkable venue.
It’s pretty difficult to get hold of a ticket for the run but not entirely impossible and, believe me, will be well worth your effort.
*Romeo & Juliet continues at Victoria Baths, Hathersage Road, until October 4, 2014.
*Meet the Director with Walter Meierjohann is at Number One First Street on September 30, 2014. Free but booking essential at the HOME Box Office 0161-200 1500.
*Tours of Victoria Baths take place every Wednesday at 2pm (April-October). Open Days take place on the first Sunday of each month (April-November). More information at www.victoriabaths.org.uk or 0161-224 2020.