“How many times can a man bury a child before he breaks?”
So cried the Friar in Contender Charlie and China Plate’s production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: Mad Blood Stirring. And what a Friar he was. Muscle-bound, intense and tortured, Nathan Medina’s Friar was far from the usual tubby, self-indulgent characterisation of the clergyman. He was the star of the performance, giving it a huge boost of soul and energy.
Mad Blood Stirring was aimed at 9-13 year olds, but the Shakespearean language wasn’t dumbed down. Instead, the Friar acted as a narrator, giving a commentary in modern-day English to help make sense of Shakespeare’s scenes.
It was a Friday night when we watched Romeo and Juliet: Mad Blood Stirring, in Deptford’s intimate Albany Theatre. Stabbings are common in south-east London, so Shakespeare’s tale of clannish violence felt particularly pertinent. The performance opened with a violent fight between Mercutio and Tybalt. We sat on mats on the floor, almost nose-to-nose with the realistic-looking knives wielded by the leering louts. This was big, bad gangland energy at its most dramatic. The Friar waded in, parting the two fighting youths. My son was captivated, eyes wide in shocked delight.
Contender Charlie and China Plate are touring this performance, for schools and public audiences around England. It’s a gripping interpretation that gives the classic tale a modern resonance. It’s not just the young men who have a hard time in this close-to-life dystopia. The pared-down cast removes Juliet’s Nurse. Without her friend and confidante, Juliet seems isolated and friendless. She’s played with haunting anxiety by Anna Sode.
Juliet sits, picking at her black-painted fingernails, while her parents are projected as talking heads onto the walls behind her. They abuse and harangue, call her worthless and cajole her towards marrying Paris. There are a couple of moments of light relief, when Juliet picks up a guitar and starts strumming and singing at the party where Romeo claps eyes on her. But this Juliet walks around in a cloud of angsty darkness – and the audience almost feels relieved for her when she ends her life.
Was this performance too dark for 9-13 year olds? My son’s at the lower end of the age range, and he turned his head away from some of the stabbing scenes. But he came out exclaiming about how brilliant this Romeo and Juliet was. It did make me wonder how aware he is of the street violence that happens in London. Children in his age group – older primary school kids, and children new to secondary school – go through training where we live. The police run sessions on how to stay safe on public transport and on the streets. How to walk away from danger. So violence is common currency, and the fight scenes in Romeo and Juliet weren’t a far cry from what they know. The Friar, streetwise and with a pronounced London accent, gave moral messages without coming across as preachy. He talked about gangs, and how “everyone carries a weapon – and that’s how you get caught in the crossfire.” His message was pitched just right for a load of fledgeling youths.
Romeo and Juliet: Mad Blood Stirring is billed as an immersive performance. For our show, where the children were outnumbered by adults, this mainly involved sitting on cushions on the floor, right next to the action. But I was told that, for schools, the Friar stokes more of a discussion with the audience. Did they think Romeo was right to run away after murdering Tybalt? Juliet’s awful parents – are yours sometimes like that? I could see how this would have worked – and how the Friar’s streetwise energy would have held even lairy schoolkids in check.
Smoky and atmospheric, this really was an impressive production. I did miss the jollity that Juliet’s Nurse brings to the play. But to keep the performance to a manageable length of 70 minutes, a lot of the original needed to be cut. The set was sparse, but it goes to show that Shakespeare’s tale is successful even when it’s cut right back to the bone. I’m sure that not one child would emerge from this gripping, powerful production saying that Shakespeare was boring. Romeo and Juliet: Mad Blood Stirring was an introduction to the Bard that will resonate with the lives of youngsters. Contender Charlie and China Plate have created a treasure.
Romeo and Juliet: Mad Blood Stirring is touring England until 22 March 2019. For details of listings, check the China Plate website.
Don’t forget to check out our guide to the best theatres for kids in London.