When you receive an email featuring such memorable lines as “due to the incredible demand we have experienced” (repeated twice) and “we can move forward with contracts to confirm your place”, along with the threat of a £45 fine, it’s tricky not to take against its senders. But, given the hype and the fact that I had already paid for a ticket, I tried hard to afford PRISM the benefit of the doubt. It’s a shame, then, that the show itself didn’t offer me anything that could counteract those doubts sowed by its marketing team.
RxJ confused me: was this a production aiming at a visceral and immersive spectacle? Because most scenes struck me as incredibly static. Certainly, it was streamlined and professional aesthetically, but I struggled to see what these visuals brought to Romeo and Juliet. What was the relevance of a huge cross at the back of the stage (I’ll admit it looked cool), or of the hospital masks that everyone wore but no one alluded to? In a show which promised to destroy the linearity of Shakespeare’s text, I was surprised to discern only two re-orderings of the narrative, with a scene shift at beginning and then end.
To be honest, I found this “radical new imagining” quite boring. Staging unfailingly takes place at one level and on a narrow stretch at the front of the stage. Actors stand still or pace on the spot, usually one-metre apart. Even Shakespeare’s balcony scene, which surely cries out for some interesting movement, followed this formula. A pair of spotlights is introduced especially but the lovers, once again, stand still and separate, directly in front of one another.
On the other hand, these naturalistic scenes are interspersed by interpretive moments that seemed to get closer to reimagining the text. I enjoyed an immersive opening sequence and the decision to play around with Shakespeare’s prologue was basically promising: why, then, did the play so often revert to simplistic staging and unimaginative direction? A break of realism at the end of the play was amusing but didn’t make sense, given the play that had preceded.
What became painfully clear was that actors and dancers (neither of whom were bad at all), simply hadn’t been directed. Choreography didn’t tell a story or illuminate aspects of the text; dance routines were repetitive, over-long, and felt irrelevant. Among actors, I found physicality almost universally lacking: interactions were wooden and refused resolutely to bridge that golden one metre gap. Which, for the “star-cross’d lovers”, meant staving off any possible chemistry. Cassian Bilton and Sophie Badman, as Romeo and Juliet respectively, were the strongest members of the cast, but no physical attraction between them was distinguishable.
At a most basic level, unexamined class issues are probably a faux-pas; why was the nurse the only character dropping her h’s?
Tech-wise RxJ is flawless, though. Imaginative lighting and an impressive original score complement each other well, and it’s nice to see Oxford drama venturing out to new destinations. The Pegasus Theatre is certainly a cool space and it deserved to be utilised better, because venue choice was probably the only thing radical or new about this production.
NOTE: As a student theatre company, PRISM have no affiliation with the marketing team for Pegasus Theatre.