HOME have thrown everything but the kitchen sink at this production – their budget is clearly substantial and the lavish set, sprawling across three of the pool-rooms in ‘Manchester’s water palace’, is truly something to behold. Most of the play takes place in and around one of the empty pools, where a raised transverse platform inside the pool becomes mirrored walls and floor for the Capulet party, then half-collapses again to become Juliet’s bed. Elaborate staircases directly connect the pool to the upper gallery level, where some of the audience sit, while the rest stand around and in the pool itself. There is a further room where we briefly stand to watch Romeo in Mantua, and then the final scene plays out in Juliet’s watery tomb – for one of the pools has been filled again, and the great old hall is all hazy gloom, floating candles and a giant crucifix-shaped walkway on which Juliet takes the position of Christ.
I was sold on the idea of Romeo and Juliet at Victoria Baths as soon as I heard about it, so I only glimpsed the promotional materials – but the glimpse I saw, mentioning an Eastern European influence and showing a quirky picture of the two lovers’ pairs of feet, gave me an idea of what I was about to see. I imagined something gritty, bleak, set in the bare and empty spaces of the decayed baths. You can already tell from my description of the set that I was wrong about the emptiness and bareness – but I was wrong about everything else, too. This is not a gritty show. It is bedecked in sequins, even outside the Capulets’ party, when two mirrorballs descend from the ceiling and rows of lit bulbs reflect off the mirrored set. Romeo is a hipster in skinny jeans, who first appears howling into a microphone while two of the company play guitar and drums. Tybalt is in head-to-toe leather. The aesthetic, especially combined with such a large cast and impressive set designs, has a strong tinge of musical theatre about it.
But if the style is ‘sequinned hipster gangs’, at least the show is self-aware and sends itself up at times – when Mercutio breaks into ‘YMCA’ at the sight of leather-clad Tybalt, or when Romeo sings a Beatles song under Juliet’s balcony, leading to an awkward, but funny and tender, sing-a-long session between the pair culminating in Beyonce’s ‘Crazy in Love’.
Any modern reimagining of Romeo and Juliet must contend with the looming spectre of Baz Luhrmann. This version has quite liberally borrowed from his 1996 film – from the giant crosses to the masked party, and a lot of the character interpretations, such as that Tybalt in leather, a cross-dressing black Mercutio, the heavily-accented nurse… Perhaps it is better to follow Luhrmann in certain ways rather than being different for the sake of difference – and as a great admirer of Luhrmann’s version, I didn’t mind it – but where changes are made, they are inspired. For instance, the brawl at the beginning of the play centrally features old Capulet and Montague themselves – rather than being the untouchable mob bosses, who would never dirty their own hands, the two men are seen brandishing knives at each other. That’s another thing – the use of knives in place of swords, where Luhrmann uses guns, gives the fights a more brutal edge. (Having Romeo beat Tybalt to death in a fit of rage, rather than stabbing him, is another decision that works beautifully.)
The music, mostly performed live, does very well at creating different atmospheres, from the groovy party at Capulet’s to the chilling moment when Juliet has a foreboding of Romeo’s death. The only music I disliked was the ensemble singing which begins and ends the play – at the beginning, the harmonies are somewhat strained, and at the end, the tune that breaks the silence of the final tableau is a little too jaunty.
As I said, HOME have pulled out all the stops, but while they used the baths space in inventive ways, there was still something of a disconnect – why were we in a swimming-baths? Why was Juliet’s tomb full of water? The answer, of course, is because this historic and beautiful venue was too good an opportunity to miss, and a great draw for audiences who could discover its other beauties in the time before and after the play. But I saw the production of Twelfth Night that took place here in 2013, which drew inspiration from the setting to create a Victorian madhouse/freakshow aesthetic, and without any added scenery, used the same empty pool space to great effect. I don’t mean this as a slight on HOME’s production, however – undeniably, it was visually stunning and inventive in its direction, and I would recommend it to anybody, were it not already sold out for the rest of its run, with the waiting list closed.