In the latest look at a show that should have opened this week but could not because of the coronavirus lockdown, Lyn Gardner speaks to Kimberley Sykes, director of Romeo and Juliet, which was due to open at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. She also looks at a significant show that opened this week in a previous year
A revival of Romeo and Juliet at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre was due to run from June 27 until July 25, with a press night on July 3. It was to be directed by Kimberley Sykes – who last season staged As You Like It for the Royal Shakespeare Company – and set in London 11 years in the future, after a great disaster; a society without mobile phones and Twitter. “When you are updating a setting, you have to take care of the myth of the play,” says Sykes.
She has always loved Romeo and Juliet. “It has such momentum. The narrative is so clear. You get on the train and you are on one track and you know where it’s going. We love watching people doing things for the first time, and in Romeo and Juliet we get to watch people fall in love for the first time, have sex for the first time, kill for the first time. It should feel all-consuming for the audience because it is for the characters.”
When she was thinking about the play, Sykes was drawn to the Nurse’s line about it being 11 years since the earthquake, and Capulet saying that the earth has swallowed all his hopes.
“I imagined a world of mourning and loss in a time of peace after a catastrophe – pretty much like after Covid. It upsets me that it feels so zeitgeisty now. There is even a plague. The play is asking: do we keep making the same mistakes or do we learn from the past and listen to our young people?”
Who was involved?
It was going to be designed by Naomi Dawson, with Shelley Maxwell on board as movement director, Lee Curran as the lighting designer and Giles Thomas as the sound designer and composer.
How far did they get?
“We were nearly fully cast,” says Sykes. “I really feel for the actors, it’s such a terrifying time in theatre right now. I am worried by how many talented people we are going to lose from the industry. We’ve given the actors we had already cast first refusal for next year.”
Will they put it on at a later date?
“The entire 2020 season has been moved to 2021, so yes. I know I’m lucky, I know I’ve got something for next year, so many other directors are in far worse positions. The thing that the Open Air Theatre needs now is for audiences to buy the tickets for next year. They are already on sale and the theatre really needs help.
Going to the Open Air always feels like event theatre. I like the element of the unknown because the environment can’t be completely controlled
It is such an exciting space, one we need. Going to the Open Air always feels like event theatre. I like the element of the unknown because the environment can’t be completely controlled. It is never a passive space.”
What is Sykes doing during the shutdown?
“As soon as the theatre shutdown happened and I realised all the work I had was slipping away, I volunteered for my local food bank in Lewisham. I find it hard to sit around – I’m one of those people who needs to do things. It is an uncomfortable truth for a theatre director like me, but in the middle of a crisis like this one, what people need most is food, not theatre. It felt right to help at a food bank, and I’ve discovered that like a rehearsal room, it feels like family.
“It even takes place in a church hall, which is where rehearsals often take place. The food bank is very much an ensemble effort. As with a rehearsal room, we all learn from each other. The skills I’ve developed as a director have helped me at the food bank, and what I’ve learned at the food bank will, I hope, help me when we are making theatre again. We will make theatre after the pandemic because it will be needed.”
Further details: openairtheatre.com
A show that did take place this week 11 years ago was Punchdrunk’s It Felt Like a Kiss, which opened as part of Manchester International Festival on July 2, 2009.
Taking its title from the 1962 song by The Crystals He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss), it was an immersive collaboration drawing on the talents of Punchdrunk artistic director Felix Barrett, film-maker Adam Curtis (best known for his TV documentaries including The Power of Nightmares), former Blur frontman Damon Albarn, and the Kronos Quartet.
It came hot on the heels of Punchdrunk’s breakthrough success, The Masque of the Red Death at Battersea Arts Centre, but showed the company operating in a different mode, one that leaned more towards installation than a performance with actors. It was always unashamedly political as it showed how the American Dream turned into a nightmare in the post-war period of global political interference.
Audiences set off on a solo journey through empty rooms that became increasingly sinister, at first featuring half-eaten cherry pies and white picket fences and eventually morphing into caged walkways, 1960s CIA offices and empty rooms with blood on the floor. The attention to detail was, as ever, astonishing. As the Observer’s Susannah Clapp remarked about Punchdrunk at the time: “They always turn your eyes inside out.”
Occupying six floors of an empty office building in Hardman Square and operating like a walk-through ghost train, it had Curtis’ eerie wordless short film at its heart, offering a collage of images ranging from the Kennedy assassination to Doris Day. It Felt Like a Kiss was a nightmarish journey of accelerating terror.
Some critics did not take kindly to the final surprise of being chased by a man wielding a chainsaw. “These fairground shock tactics insult our intelligence,” huffed one. But as Kate Bassett observed in the Independent on Sunday: “By the time you get down to the basement, where some very nasty surprises lurk, whatever spurious empowerment you might have felt has evaporated – a perfect fit between the show’s thesis and the spectator’s experience.”
The production was a sell-out success, but its importance was that it demonstrated immersive theatre could be as political as anything written by state-of-the-nation playwrights.
To this day it reminds us that the meddling of governments and their agencies in the past will always come back to haunt us in the present.