Merely Theatre has put on a pair of stripped down, energetic and understandable performances of two of Shakespeare’s most familiar and beloved plays. Whilst demonstrating excellent comedic athleticism in Twelfth Night, sadly this troupe pulls its emotional punches and misses the mark with the tone and execution of Romeo & Juliet. Operating as a gender-blind company with a nightly jumble of the casting, the company attempts to demonstrate what a truly modern contemporary company can bring to early modern theatre.
Beginning with Romeo & Juliet, the play lumbered on a one-note trajectory, with pivotal scenes seeming rushed through, with little or no connection to the material at times. As the star-crossed lovers sped towards their fate, audiences were faced with a troupe that knew their lines but had little to feed on when confronted with rushed monologues and disappointingly hasty fight scenes that imbibed about as much tension or danger as a limp salad.
Happily, the troupe redeemed much of my melancholy the next night, with a sparkling production of Twelfth Night that shone with wit. The full red-trousered, old-boys rah of Sarah Peachey and Hannah Ellis as Sir Toby and Sir Andrew demonstrated precisely what Merely Theatre excels at, re-animating very old, familiar lines into contemporary new forms. It was perfectly honed comedy that effortlessly lifted the room. Director Scott Ellis has placed clarity above artistic interpretation in this rotation of performances.
Although I was grateful for the absence of a twee twist on Shakespeare’s classics that often seem derived and pointless, Ellis seems to have very little original vision for the plays. As such they were predictable, and if I dare say so, a little pedestrian. The scarcity of the set, composed of five canvas thresholds, stood in stark contrast to the opulence of the King’s Theatre. It drew the eye as does a hole in a brightly hewn costume.
Unfortunately, Merely Theatre did not provide a lot of colour to fill the gap. These plays needed not only big performances but also big characterisation, which often comes in the detail. Ellis sacrificed a lot of this to allow more versatility for the troupe of five playing multiple roles. The result somewhat limits the legitimacy of the drama. In such a bare setting, powerful emotional performances are all that tie the audience to the fictional world of the story, and the lack of it is sorely felt.
Merely Theatre is a gender-blind company that uses twin casting of each gender in each role. Harkening to the historical cross-gender casting in Shakespeare’s plays, the company seeks to demonstrate the richness of his characters regardless of the gender of the actor within the role. It is an encouraging ethos – not only for dedication to equal employment but by demonstrating to young audiences that the roles are not summed up by their gender but by emotional complexity.
The material, of course, does not disappoint, and so the place is set for actors to sink their teeth into characters and make them their own. Emmy Rose’s easy transition from wide-eyed and girlish Juliet to the vicious and sociopathic Tybalt was the perfect example of this.
The repertory system of production has fallen out of the limelight as of late: it was once what launched many of Britain’s best-loved actors. The method of the same group of actors rehearsing multiple shows at once, performing many throughout the year was what also launched many of Britain’s best loved actors. Merely Theatre may be playing its own part in the revival of such a practice, demonstrating the same dedication to the classics, and a rigorous rehearsal regime. The strain of such a workload does show during the performance however, as Romeo & Juliet suffered for seeming lack of individual care and attention to scenes that needed it. It is unfortunate, as I respect these actors’ dedication to a wonderful regimen of theatre, and their fresh approach to twin casting. The programme for the shows says “the rep is not dead. It has evolved.” Indeed that may be true, but there remain some defects that need ironing before Merely Theatre can really launch its best work.
Although I highly applaud the ethos and intentions of this company, I think they were limited in the execution of their aims. Without giving the actors room to breathe in the roles, the emotional performances were delivered without much impact. The heart of Merely Theatre’s skill lies in the easy comedic repertoire of the troupe when given roles that permit such playfulness, winning the audience with natural flair.
The company sets out to make early modern theatre easily comprehensible to all, and it achieves that goal easily. However, the plays struggle to cut above to any further level of depth or complexity.
Twelfth Night and Romeo & Juliet
Photo Credit: Merely Theatre