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Shakespeare’s R & J - Reading Rep Review

 Reviewed by Bliss Warland-Edge

Reading Rep is the place to be this October, with a startlingly immersive, bold adaptation of Romeo and Juliet gracing a very unique stage with a very small, but powerful cast.Director Paul Stacey brings this complex adaptation by Joe Calarco into stark reality, with its high-brow, multi-layered plot that piques the intellect and wows the audience with its sensory nature. This is not your typical Shakespearean show, but a once in a lifetime experience.

Brayden Emmanuel and Elijah Ferreria. Photo by Harry Elletson

Describing the show as an experience is the most accurate way to depict the performance, with its set (Anna Kelsey) and lighting (John Rainsforth) being the first elements to shake our reality once we have taken that first step into the theatre. Kelsey draws us into the tale before the show even begins, with a unique set comprised of three components; a risen diamond stage area, two staggered risen sections, (each cradling stage left and right of the diamond), as well as the entire floorspace surrounding the risen areas being utilised for performance, right up to the noses of the front row of the audience. Our sight is hazey and dreamlike as we experience a gentle mist of dry ice drifting from subtle vents in our diamond stage, complimented and enhanced by manipulated, undulating lighting in order to guide the audience between the two tales that we are about to see.

Elijah Ferreira sweeps onto the stage- the first of only four thespians delivering this complex performance- projecting and emoting the Shakespearean vernacular with such power and ease that the audience quickly settles into the world he creates. While his speech is powerful, this is coupled with some confusion, as we take in his school uniform and stature and wonder how a boy in a red tie and uniform is going to fit into our understanding of Shakespeare’s well-worn story of Romeo and Juliet. The theatre is dark with Rainsforth’s clever, delicate lighting carrying the weight of the audience’s experience, as we witness three more young men search in the dark and gradually uncover a book that we start to piece together as the play of Romeo and Juliet. Early on we watch the first foreshadowing interactions between Ferreiranow our Romeo and Braydon Emmanuel -our Juliet for the night- with Ferreira’s lust subtly transcending his ‘play-acting’ role into their everyday boarding school lives. 

An announcement of ‘Act 1 Scene 1’ bellows across the stage from actor Luke Daniels, a clear standout in the cast; his smooth articulation and intonation of the Shakespearean parlance wows the audience and suggests classically trained background, with a level of professionalism that is frequently notable during the performance, even when delivering his laddish schoolboy role. These Scene announcements signify another unique element to the performance, as we begin to witness a deconstructed version of the classic Romeo and Juliet intermingled with our schoolboy plot- it swings between cult-like latin chants of the boarding school, to delicate intimacy between lovers and then battles of conflict both within our tale and our schoolboy plotline.

Masterminded by Chris Cuming, the movement directing plays an obvious and significant role in guiding the audience across these two worlds, with the costumes (Kelsey) being utilised as props to tie together and sometimes identify the divide of the two. When identifying the multiple roles being delivered by the young actors, Tom Sowinski is a standout for physicality and physical comedy, with excellent control over his body language, taking the audience on the ride with him through these worlds.

The cast. Photo by Harry Elletson

Accompanying the effective lighting and set, the distinctive sound design created by Jamie Lu delivers some impressive immersive elements including thunder, lightning, rain, booming other-wordly voices, and most often throughout the play a slightly unnerving heartbeat that quickens with pace and even slows to demonstrate the slowing of time at one pointAs if our actors weren’t being tested enough with multiple levels of plot, different lexicons, 3 or so characters eachat points of the play they even light the stage themselves, with Brayden Emmanuel effectively finding his light no matter the source, even offering an effective soliloquy by torchlight.

A beautiful and intellectual tale, including LGBTQIA+ themes and an outstandingly unique, immersive experience, it is guaranteed you will not see another Romeo and Juliet version like this.

Shakespeare’s R & J continues at Reading Rep until Saturday 4th November. Tickets are available from

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