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Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank: a Romeo and Juliet for 2024

9 minute read

“I thought it was gonna be this kind of play but no, I was surprised it was so normal, you guys speak just like us!” 

 – an excited teenager tells Romeo and Juliet cast members how this year’s Playing Shakespeare production subverted his expectations.

Felixe Forde as Juliet and Hayden Mampasi as Romeo. Photography by Tristram Kenton.

Felixe Forde as Juliet and Hayden Mampasi as Romeo in Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank: Romeo and Juliet (2024). Photography by Tristram Kenton.

He’s not alone. Step into the theatre, anytime a performance of Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank: Romeo and Juliet is on, and the buzz from audiences is visceral

There’s an electricity to the exchange between actors and audience. “I feel like they’re transferring energy to me,” said Marieme Diouf who plays Friar Lawrence. “It’s leaving more of an impact because the energy is palpable”. 

That energy, that electricity, isn’t the by-product of hundreds of teenagers herded into one space, it’s the choice to make this production current, now, part of the teenagers’ world. From the breadth of casting representation, to the graffitied urban ‘grittiness’, setting this 400-year-old play in modern London, there’s nothing dusty and traditional about this production. 

Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank is just as important now as when the project began 18 years ago. For many kids, it’s their first taste of theatre, let alone Shakespeare. The production is the jewel in the education department’s crown, an annual, 90 minute, stripped down, secondary school focused version. With 26,000 free tickets for schools in London and Birmingham, it makes Shakespeare accessible to everyone

Hayden Mampasi as Romeo in the crowd. Photography be Cesare De Giglio.

Hayden Mampasi as Romeo amongst the crowd at Shakespeare’s Globe. Photography be Cesare De Giglio.

This year’s production, running from 19th March to 13th April, truly is one of the shiniest jewels in the Wooden O’s crown. Directed by Lucy Cuthbertson (Director of Olivier-nominated Midsummer Mechanicals, and Shakespeare’s Globe Director of Education) the play aims not only to support the curriculum but take a bold step towards tackling knife crime. To do this, cast and crew worked with Sadiq Khan’s Violence Reduction Unit. Yes, the violence is brutal, yes, it’s real and leaves you reeling, but that’s the point. Rapier fights, in frilly costumes, weren’t going to deliver the show’s hard hitting, and oh so vital, message. It allows audiences to examine the consequences of street violence, considering their actions, while seeing there is another path.  

The mission, however, isn’t simply to educate, but to entertain. Director Lucy Cuthbertson wants school audiences to have the best time: “where they’ve fallen in love with the Globe, loved the production, understood it, and, somewhere in their minds, it’s resonating that it’s Shakespeare. They’ve loved this thing that is Shakespeare and see that those two things don’t have to be mutually exclusive.” 

Simeon Desvignes as Paris with the company. Photography by Cesare De Giglio.

Simeon Desvignes as Paris and the rest of the company delighting the crowd. Photography by Cesare De Giglio.

Anyone who’s seen Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank previously, knows how raucous a theatre full of teenagers can be. Lucy’s superb direction, however, allows them to get hyped-up, but self-regulate and quiet down for the next bit. “That excites me,” she said, “when they want to watch, want to listen, that feels like ‘job done’”. 

For many, this will be their first experience of theatre. Liam King (who plays Tybalt) thinks audiences get into the story because they don’t necessarily know theatre etiquette. He said, “they’re shouting stuff and getting hyped up. It’s really nice because sometimes, if you do something really big and dramatic for a polite audience, they sit in silence and nod, whereas this one, you can feel the response which is really exciting,”. 

It also makes this show closer to Elizabethan theatre. “It’s probably more accurate to what Shakespeare’s audience would have been like because they didn’t have theatre etiquette, the notion of lights coming down, of the audience being quiet. They would yell out, get involved, so it’s like going back to that,” Liam said.

Hayden Mampasi as Romeo interacting with the crowd. Photography by Cesare De Giglio.

Hayden Mampasi as Romeo interacting with the crowd. Photography by Cesare De Giglio.

Lucy prepared the actors for this by likening it to the Coliseum! A lot of thought went into the responses they might get. She cites 20 years of making work for kids in schools, and many years’ experience on this show, as her secret weapon. “I think like a teenager,” she said, “I know how they’re going to respond”.  

Her work on tailoring the show started in auditions. She wanted a company who were not only great performers but understood the show’s purpose. “If you just get good actors, sometimes they are used to doing shows where they’re being listened to with adoration (or at least focus!) by people who have paid a hundred quid. Ultimately, you could say these kids have been hijacked to come here. They didn’t ask to come, so there’s a lot of things going against the whole thing,” she said. 

Marieme agrees. She feels performing the show for teenagers is like “finding them in their own home.” “It’s not necessarily that they’ve turned up to see it. It feels like we’ve turned up in their house and gone, ‘please give us a moment.’” 

It’s partly the choice to strip back the text to the essential story bones that keeps audiences engaged. Fight director Kevin McCurdy explained, “historical references have been cut. Some of the ‘flannel’s’ been cut. Anything that didn’t need to be there, we’ve got rid of it. It’s the speed, for the young people, that keeps them engaged,”. 

This, and the show’s breath-taking physicality helped overcome the language barrier many teenagers feel. Gone is the traditional ‘thumb-biting’, instead, it opens with a brutal street fight, featuring improvised weapons (iron bars, crutches, bricks, even bicycles). It’s the kind of real-life gang violence you see on grainy crime watch footage.

Owen Gawthorpe, Liam King and Hayden Mampasi. Photography by Tristram Kenton.

Owen Gawthorpe, Liam King and Hayden Mampasi. Photography by Tristram Kenton.

Lucy explained: “A lot of students and adults struggle with the language. If I go to see a Shakespeare play, I’m not very familiar with, I’d say 70% of it’s going over my head.  You’re watching for physical and visual clues. So, from the outset, we decided to make this very visual so that even if you didn’t understand most of what you were hearing, you could follow the story.” 

It’s paying off. The show resonates with its audience, they’re understanding and having intelligent, empathetic responses. Marieme felt this during a scene where she tells Romeo off. Kids were shouting “you should smack him, he’s not listening to you, smack him!”  

“I love that they understand what’s happening, like they know this adult is trying to get him onto the right path. It’s nice to know they’re on the same page as us,” she said. 

Hayden mampasi as Romeo and Mariéme Diouf as Friday. Photography by Cesare De Giglio.

Violence has its own substance in the show, but it hasn’t been gratuitously and unnecessarily layered on. Its raw and bleeding through the text.  Kevin explained, “Every time Romeo and Juliet is done, for me, the violence is a by-product of what the world is. In fact, the world is violent from the off, it’s all the way through the play. You can see it referenced throughout, and where the characters state of mind is. It’s an integral piece of characterisation for everything and everybody that goes on in that particular world. You can’t do the play without it, you have to involve it, you have to make sense of it. It’s what the young people are growing up with, this is what they see, so it’s only right to represent that.” 

He felt a duty to accurately present the world many students will see and be familiar with. “It’s that danger they wake up with every single morning, that they deal with all the time. As creatives we have to represent that danger, we have to represent their status in society. If we don’t, we’re not doing our job.” 

The Company in Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank: Romeo and Juliet. Photopgraphy by Tristram Kenton.

The Company in Playing Shakespeare with Deutsche Bank: Romeo and Juliet. Photopgraphy by Tristram Kenton.

Hence working with The Violence Reduction Unit’s (VRU) Young People’s Action Group (YPAG).  The VRU (part of the Mayor of London’s office) are a team of specialists who look at why violence happens and take action to prevent it. Their message is “violence is preventable, not inevitable” which fits perfectly with the shows messaging. YPAG made a video supporting the show and worked with cast and creatives in rehearsals to give a sense of what happens on the streets, while looking after the well-being of young audiences. They advised cast and crew on how people stand and move, as well as the types of improvised weapons used today.  

The experience was an eye-opener. Particularly, as Marieme said, the discussion around “the transitions of knives, in the gang world. That the knife you came out with is more likely to stab you”. “These kids go out thinking ‘we need to protect ourselves’, but that action gets them in danger,” she said. 

It’s highlighted in the play, by the choice to have Tybalt killed by his own knife. Liam hopes this serves as a moment of reflection on what circumstances brought the violence about. “Tybalt is a product of his environment. He doesn’t know what else there is for him,” he said. 

School children react to the unfolding drama. Photography by Cesare De Giglio.

Kevin feels this choice enables audiences to look at where the violence comes from. “It’s not just Tybalt saying, “I’m gonna kill you” for no reason. He’s been embarrassed at his house, by something he perceives to be a threat that’s not a threat. That anger’s come out because of what’s going on between him and Capulet. It has nothing to do with Romeo. The young people see those threats, recognise it, and see why these things happen. They see it’s not correct.” 

It’s this combination of fast-paced entertainment, clarity of message, stripped back text, and tackling of street violence that makes this show vital for school groups to attend. As Kevin said, “They love the action, they love the play, but they can see it’s not the right way to do things.”