A few weeks ago, in the bowels of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Amy Leach was trying to marshall what looked like a small army. As well as a dozen or so professional actors, her production of Romeo and Juliet also features a large community cast who need to be carefully choreographed in this contemporary adaptation of Shakespeare’s best known play.
“We are definitely getting there,” says Amy, who has just recently been made associate director at the theatre. “It’s great having such a large cast, but it does require military precision when it comes to who is doing what, when.”
A staple on the school syllabus,
Romeo and Juliet is in many ways an easy choice for any theatre to stage and guarantees decent ticket sales. What’s not so easy is creating a production which stands out from the rest.
Still, if anyone can make literature’s most famous star-crossed lovers relevant for the contemporary stage it’s probably Leach. In recent years, it’s her deft hand which has been behind the likes of Kes, Little Sure Shot and The Night Before Christmas and she was adamant that this Romeo and Juliet should again speak to a young audience.
“It’s funny, my first visit to the Playhouse was more than 20 years ago to see Romeo and Juliet and it’s a story I’ve loved ever since. No play captures the headiness of young love, passion and fury like Romeo and Juliet. It’s a play I have always wanted to direct, but now really did feel like the right time. Over the last year there has been so much change politically that the story of two families who can’t see what they have in common because they only see what divides them has never seemed more pertinent.
“We are living in a world where we are becoming more inward looking and less tolerant of difference and those are issues that Shakespeare really addresses in Romeo and Juliet.”
While they may not have many lines, the play’s young company play a vital role in building up a picture of Shakespeare’s fractured world.
“In this production there are three generations on stage,” says Leach. “There are the elder Montagues and Capulets whose historic rivalry is passed down to Romeo and Juliet’s generation and then there is the generation below them.
“They may still end up in opposition to one another, but they represent the hope that history won’t end up repeating itself and that this time things might turn out differently.
“A few of us involved in this production joined the anti-Trump protests in Leeds after he tried to ban residents from various countries travelling to America. At one point I looked around and saw that the crowds were full of young people and despite everything that is going on in the world at the moment it did give me hope for the future.”
Leach’s Romeo and Juliet is unashamedly set in today’s Britain – there’s not a pair of breeches in sight – and the original script has also been pared back.
“I’ve always loved the idea of a modern adaptation of Romeo and Juliet,” says Callum Mardy, one of the play’s young company. “When you first glance at a Shakespeare play the language can be quite daunting, but if you allow yourself to be immersed in it then the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle fall into place.
“I think we all feel that in this production we are part of something really special. Amy has really made us feel that we are as important as the rest of the cast and even though we are only in rehearsals at the moment the feeling of being on stage is incredible.”
Like many of the young company, Callum got his first real taste for acting as part of the Playhouse’s First Floor scheme and he is now studying drama at Leeds City College.
“I have always been really interested in drama, but at high school I couldn’t take part in any of the classes,” he says. “I use a wheelchair and it just so happened that the drama department was on a level I couldn’t access. First Floor was really important for me. It gave me a real confidence boost just when I needed it and without it I probably wouldn’t be doing what I am now.
“For me acting is freedom and being part of Romeo and Juliet is the next step on the journey and I hope will show other people just what a young cast can do.”
Callum took part in the touring production of Kes, and Romeo and Juliet also reunites its main actors, with Dan Parr playing Romeo and Jack Lord as Lord Capulet.
“It’s always nice to go into a rehearsal room where there are a few familiar faces and Amy is a wonderful director to work with,” says Lord. “While ultimately she calls the shots and she knows what she wants, Amy is also very open to suggestions and given that we are trying to do something very different with this production having a director who is willing to take on other people’s ideas is key.
“There is a large visual and technical element to this production, so while at it’s heart it is still Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet it should really speak to a young, modern audience.
“If theatre is going to be successful it has to take risks. The reason why Shakespeare’s plays have survived through the centuries is because they contain universal truths, but the very best productions take his words and shape them into something meaningful for today.”
Romeo and Juliet, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds opens tonight and runs to March 25. There will be a post show discussion on March 14 and for tickets 0113 213 7700 or online atwyp.org.uk