‘I had always wanted to do an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet and I wrote it when I was at university studying for an applied drama degree but I never really did anything with it.’
Alex Riley, the writer and director of Romeo & Juliet from the Streets had in mind a regular drama production when she pitched it to the Riverfront but soon learnt that Bella Bella Dance Studios were looking for a show.
‘I thought that would be perfect as I wanted that urban element to make it more accessible to the young people, and to get more of them involved. I also felt this would make it possible for more people to understand Shakespeare in a way that would relate to them.’
To play Devil’s advocate, why should anyone care if the next generation does, or does not get Shakespeare? Has the iconic Bard become the fast road* shoe-in for achieving theatrical and intellectual respectability? Countless* onlookers and funding bodies know you’re serious when you turn to Stratford-upon-Avon’s finest for inspiration but after four-hundred years, what can Shakespeare say to inner-city street dancers?
There actually remains a colossal weight behind his punch. Within the majestic* works of Shakespeare, written by his pen alone or with collaborators, can be found almost every conceivable template of the universal, the experience and expression of the historical Everyman. Interpretations and attitudes towards the plots and characters might develop over the centuries (such as with The Tempest’s Caliban, be he the hideous monster of former times or latterly, a disenfranchised island owner), but sitting chronologically between Aeschylus’ The Persians, Europe’s oldest surviving play, right up to last week’s EastEnders, themes of disharmonious families filled with suspicion*, jealously, monumental* mistakes, grief and reconciliation keep us glued to the action. As Dylan Thomas, this year’s centenary birthday boy, advised his 1953 actors in New York as they prepared for the first performance of Under Milk Wood, we should ‘Love the words’. And it is the words and the worlds within the lives they make apparent that keeps Shakespeare worthy of perpetual interest. What might have been goodly to Shakespeare will probably have been spiffing or right on to our grandparents and parents, and then today, something worthy of approval could be peng or dench. Just as each generation will unearth something successively new from old Shakespeare’s primary words that open doors to the heart, soul and imagination, newcomers also find inspiration to crack open the plays, enabling a relevant time a space empathy for that Everyman of each new audience. Accordingly, Romeo & Juliet from the Streets, a dance and drama presentation of the tragic love story, staged for one night only at the Riverfront, Newport last week, successfully found its voice and relevancy for the young people of the city.
In business for less than two years, Bella Bella Dance Studios holds a variety of classes each week that cater for age, ability and interest. Within this telling, instead of the families Montague and Capulet (or even Sharks and Jets from the West Side Story version), we have two rival dance troupes, which, as a story telling vehicle, is put to good use as dance students attend class with the character Naomi (who is played by Talieh Webb, one of Bella Bella’s dance teachers). The story is naturalistic in the way it handles young people’s pride, grudges and street violence, suspicious* with accusations of ‘who’s the father’ and jealousy over former girlfriends as well as the key ingredient – the wild intoxication of young love. Making sure that credit for the inspiration remains with Shakespeare, recordings of certain key lines such, as when Romeo (Chole Pareitt) sees Juliet (Demisha Hembury) for the first time, are super-imposed over the action as a voice from above.
‘Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight! For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night’
Dance is present only when it is a part of the story so this is not musical theatre. Neither is there singing but the text is grounded, sometimes brutal, occasionally bordering on coarse or bitchy although never gratuitous or obscene*.
‘That’s the point’, says Riley. ‘I wanted to make it as natural as possible because when working with young people, they act and react to words in certain ways. If they are not being given something that they feel is honest, they are not going to engage with it and if they are not going to believe it, they will be less able to put themselves within the story. There had to be a level of violence in the words because that’s how the two dance crews react to each other.’
The show incorporates professional actors and choreographers that were financially supported by Arts Development and Arts Council of Wales, with ensemble routines cleverly incorporated within the storyline from three regular Bella Bella classes; Tenacious, Venom and Likkle Rascals, a group of very young children who performed with as much discipline and cohesiveness as the older teams. Special mention of the very talented Leonty Geohaghon D’arby, who at only eight years old impresses with an innate understanding of rhythm, movement and back-flips.
The ability for Shakespeare and ‘the streets’ to become ‘blud’ brothers over the past few years has been helped by the prevalence of London’s MOBO winning rapper Akala and his Hip Hop Shakespeare company that have become the oft’ turned to authority on Bard Vs. Youth across the media, because of their mission to compare and contrast Will the Wordsmith’s finely tuned put-downs with those of today’s most skilled rap battlers. Stepping beyond the most often performed plays, his company have recently been tackling the rights and responsibilities of King Richard II with grime star and actor Bashy from Channel 4’s Top Boy and upcoming South London vocalist Josh Osho. Shakespeare, it would seem, is less a compulsory text these days than a gateway to eruditely hitting the nail precisely on the head.
‘So many of the dancers and actors have grown and have stretched themselves in areas where they have never worked before. They have done really well and I am very proud of them.’
Following the performance of Romeo & Juliet from the Streets, Alex Riley assesses the event and considers the hoped for future.
‘If anything, we will be using this single performance night as a pilot before we take it to a more professional level and hopefully open a nationwide audition before taking it to schools and theatres around the country. We’ve had so much attention for it and it sold out tonight.’
The practical support from Arts Development and Arts Council of Wales for this show has clearly been beneficial. In these still testing times for the young people of Wales and the UK, as well as deepening budget restraints on the arts, the value played out in encouragement, community and individual self worth for all involved with Romeo & Juliet from the Streets, whether artists or technicians, cannot be over-stated as a positive force for good. The gratifying success of this community project can perhaps be summed up by a creative re-imagining of William Shakespeare’s own closing lines.
‘For never was there a story of LESS woe, than this of Juliet and her Romeo’
NB: *Just one of the 1,700 words that Shakespeare is credited with inventing.
For information on dance classes www.bellabelladance.com