Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare 

  Directed by:  Roy Sargeant

  Starring:  Zondwa Njokweni as Juliet, Dean Roberts as Romeo, Sizwe Msutu as Capulet, Chi Mhende as Mrs Capulet, Mdu Kweyama as Tybalt, Diane Wilson as the Nurse, Peter Gilchrist as Friar Laurence, Jeroen Kranenburg as Montague, Clayton Boyd as Mercutio, and a full cast.

At the Artscape until 1 May. ASTRID STARK reviews

First published in the cape Times 22 April 2010

Soccer and Shakespeare are two words that are not often used synonymously.  Director Roy Sargeant has bravely decided to set Romeo and Juliet to a soccer theme and in present-day Cape Town.  The Montagues and the Capulets find themselves playing for two rivalry soccer teams. “What clash raises more contemporary emotions amongst young men today that their support for opposing soccer teams?”  Explains Sargeant “Add to this the possibility that the opposing families live their lives within the murky areas of contemporary Cape Town ganglands and we have a volatile atmosphere that can ignite in a flash such as Shakespeare imagined when he first wrote the play in 1596.”

The opening scene is that of a soccer match between the two rivals and it takes a little moment to adjust to the bizarre setting before Shakespeare’s familiar words soothingly seeps through.  Soon the enthusiastic cast sucks us into their world filled with dangerous desires, teenage angst, domineering parents and ruthless gangster wars.  Mercifully the fans left their vuvuzelas and the beleaguered Zakumi behind. 

Diane Wilson as the Nurse and Zondwa Njokweni as Juliet.

Diane Wilson as the Nurse and Zondwa Njokweni as Juliet.

Alfred Rietmann’s stage design, together with Faheem Bardien’s lighting, is bewitching.  With the use of large metallic frames, clever lighting, screens, and gently fluttering drapes, the stage sets the mood and backdrop for the various scenes.  Juliet’s bedroom is a low sitting bed in-between silver shimmering drapes through which the shadows of the steel frameworks look like window frames.  The good friar’s church is created through the artful use of smoky lights, neon crosses and stained glass visuals.  The set design doesn’t detract from the action on stage but rather enhances the drama and the atmosphere. 

Zondwa Njokweni’s Juliet seems to struggle somewhat to find her voice and confidence during part one.  It’s during the second half that she really shines and that her voice powerfully projects from her tiny body.  Her weeping, as her father tells her that she’s to be married to Paris, played by Lungi Pinda, and her final monologues, are heartbreaking and we really believe in her grief and despair.  The twenty-four year old Njokweni is also a singer and a poet and has performed at Grahamstown and Spier Poetry festivals. Dean Roberts becomes an impassioned Romeo.  His performance is convincing and keeps growing ever stronger as the two lovers are spiralling towards their gory end.  Roberts is not new to Shakespeare; he has played Rosencrantz in Hamlet and Oswald in King Lear.  He has worked as an actor, writer and director both in South Africa and abroad for the last ten years.

As Sargeant says, “This is a young person’s play.  The young people of this world are reckless. The old people are foolish.”  Romeo and Juliet’s love for each other is spontaneous, romantic and ultimately all-consuming.  Their elders are unaware of the impending disaster because they are too busy signing cold contracts that involve money and status rather than love. The cast embrace and exude this in their energetic performances. Dean Roberts’ Romeo and his gang wear tapered jeans with studded belts and t-shirts with the sleeves ripped off.  They are hormone driven, full of juvenile humour and at times bloodthirsty and caddish.  It is a fast-paced, energetic production that had the learners in the audience gasping and giggling.   Cringe-worthy were the crotch-grabbing and lewd hip gyrations that punctuated some of the scenes.  Shakespeare’s words should be enough to convey the strength of the youthful emotions.  Juliet also had two mini-wardrobe malfunctions which had me nervously squirming in my seat. 

Dean Roberts as Romeo and Zondwa Njokweni as Juliet.

Dean Roberts as Romeo and Zondwa Njokweni as Juliet.

Clayton Boyd as the mercurial Mercutio’s performance must be highlighted for being entirely absorbing. He is at one moment belligerent and the next he slips into comic rant.  His drunken antics are funny and convincing.  We are devastated when he is killed.   Chi Mhende as Juliet’s mother makes Shakespeare’s challenging prose flow beautifully. Her delivery is precise and she comes across as in control of her craft.  Diane Wilson’s nurse is dotty, but instantly likeable, if a little over the top. We love that saucy red off-the shoulder ballroom dress with the crisp white trainers.    Peter Gilchrist, for the most part delivers a good performance, however it sounded as if he fumbled some of his lines.  Either that or his voice is just not carrying as strongly as it should. It was sometimes difficult to understand him.  

The play is presented especially for learners and it unapologetically takes its liberties with Shakespeare’s words and actions.  Shakespearean classists might cringe a bit, however Sergeant makes it clear that his first objective here is accessibility and in this respect for me it succeeds. The cell phones, the abridged version of the play, the rappers and the love between a black Juliet and a blond Romeo just works; right up to the point where the two houses are united in grief.  Sargeant’s fast-paced, strong direction and choreography combined with Clayton Boyd’s excellent fight direction makes for a pleasing visual production that even an older generation might enjoy. 
  • There are 10h00, 19h00 and 201h15 time slots on various days.  Tickets at R40.00 per person and can be booked at www.computicket.com or  Artscape Dial-a-Seat on 02- 421-7695. Further information can be obtained by contacting Tania Williams-Kaponda 021 – 410 9927 or Charles Banjatwa on 021 – 410 9948.
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