Review: ROMEO AND JULIET, RSC First Encounters, Sydenham Primary School

The magic of theatre in a Midlands primary school

By: Feb. 06, 2024
Review: ROMEO AND JULIET, RSC First Encounters, Sydenham Primary School
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Review: ROMEO AND JULIET, RSC First Encounters, Sydenham Primary School There are many ways in which the so-called ‘Left Behind’ towns and regions of England have been left behind, and the growing cultural deficit, particularly for young people, is one issue that is close to my heart. The cutting of arts funding, from schools to the English National Opera, particularly as the Pandemic Generation seek to rebuild the confidence that comes from socialising, is already having an iniquitous impact on mental health and in any number of less headline-friendly areas.

So it’s both gratifying and important to highlight the work undertaken by theatre within these communities. BWW visited Sydenham Primary School in Leamington Spa at the start of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s First Encounters tour of Romeo and Juliet, running until the end of April, under the banner of the wider RSC Learn programme.

There’s always an even buzzier high-pitch sound audible on entering a building when something like this rolls into town. Coaches bringing kids in from partner schools pull up as I arrive, and there are different uniforms worn by pupils aged nine to 13 or so who file into the hall, staring at the actors and us non-combatants in the back row with eager, inquisitive eyes. 

Review: ROMEO AND JULIET, RSC First Encounters, Sydenham Primary School

Hush descends as one of the actors speaks. Caitlin Drake (who will play the Nurse) explains that we’ll see two families who hate each other, a little violence and a lot of love and some language that may sound awkward at first, but it’s nothing to worry about. A surprising number of kids raised hands to say that they had seen a Shakespeare production before, a testament to the commitment of the teaching staff to drama, and they behaved much better than audiences at many West End theatres do these days, across 90 minutes with no interval. 

The rest of the cast step forward and say a little about the character they’ll be playing, serving as both a nice introduction to the play’s narrative but also as an important underlining that what the kids see is not real, not the stuff of nightmares, but an entertainment that opens the heart to the power of love and opens the head to questions of right and wrong. 

Robin Belfield’s cuts to the full text keep the pace high and Philip J Morris’s direction tells the story of the star-crossed lovers with admirable clarity. Costume changes are visible to the side of the hall in which the cast works, props are rudimentary but effective, lights a little harsh, as are the acoustics, but the kids neither notice nor care.

They’re too wrapped up with Campbell Wallace’s laddish Romeo, crazy in love, quick to anger; Zensi Alleyne’s girlish but determined Juliet; Dinarte Gouveia’s thuggish Tybalt and the singing, backchatting Nurse who gets plenty of laughs. If I would have liked a little more emphasis on the poetry of the speeches, which would be helped by slightly slower line readings, that quibble is more than outweighed by the energy of the performances - a tour like this would sap a marathon runner, so that’s good to see at this early stage.

Phil Morris told me later a familiar story, one that I share with him. Like mine, his introduction to Shakespeare at school didn’t work. It sacrificed the magic of the plays for the academic analysis of technique, foregrounding the need to pass exams rather than derive pleasure. He found his route back to that central aim of Shakespeare himself who, lest we forget, wrote for money and patronage not for some future deification.

The thousands of kids who will see this production in their schools will not only have an afternoon they will never forget, but will have the seed of enquiry planted in their souls. As that seed grows, some will harvest its fruits in other areas of their lives, not least in furtherance of ‘soft skills’ such as personal confidence and leadership we’re told are so important in educational development and which the arts foster like nothing else. For others, it will spark a lifelong love of theatre and storytelling with the empathy for the fate of others that underpins such an engagement.

Most, though, will grow up as most young people do, with just a little of joy and pain of Romeo and his Juliet in their own lives, hopefully without the disastrous consequences! Morris acknowledges this connection between the teens of Verona and the teens of England - “Knowing that there’s always more than one way to approach a problem is a really important skill for young people so, post-show, the actors will open up discussions around what other choices the characters could have made or who else they might have turned to for help”.

That’s not all they’ll learn either. I’ll wager that these wide-eyed kids will come back to theatre, maybe even Shakespeare himself, at some point in their lives, maybe when they have their own children and they’re looking for something to improve their minds and souls.

Almost half a century on from my first encounter with Shakespeare (analysis of iambic pentameter rather than revelling in the blood and thunder of Mark Antony vs Brutus with the whole world at stake), I could see myself in those kids and appreciate the alchemy of how the lightning of creativity was caught in a bottle one winter’s afternoon in a suburban Midlands primary school. Long may it continue, no matter the pronouncements of the beancounters who, as always, know the price of everything and the value of nothing.    

First Encounters Romeo and Juliet in on tour until end April 2024

Photo Credits: Joseph Bailey