REVIEW (From a distance): Romeo and Juliet, Creation Theatre

In the week when theatre buildings are starting to tentatively re-open their doors, Creation Theatre have well and truly nailed their colours to the digital theatre mast with their latest online production, a gamified adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Known for their innovative and immersive productions pre-pandemic, Creation Theatre have been at the forefront of the development of digital theatre as an artform in itself, giving a new meaning to “site-specific” theatre with this multi-platform web-based experience that puts the audience in control of the star-crossed lovers’ fate.

Having set the bar very high with previous digital productions, Creation promised an even more immersive experience with this show, which blends real-time performance with pre-filmed scenes and “choose your own adventure” style gameplay. But while it was technologically impressive (and a clear improvement on early use of green screen Zoom theatre) it felt a little disjointed and didn’t quite deliver on the promise to put the audience in control of preventing the plague on the protagonists’ houses.

Annabelle Terry as Juliet and Kofi Dennis as Romeo in Creation Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet

After an optional fortune telling session with Fate, the action begins on Zoom where audience members are required to align themselves with either the Montagues or Capulets. We picked the latter, meaning we saw the early action from the Capulet perspective while the Montagues were in a different Zoom room. Although there was limited audience interaction at this stage, there was a first chance to make a choice here, with viewers raising their hands to decide to have a beer with the Nurse ahead of the Capulet ball. Then we were off to the ball where we were merged with the Montagues in another Zoom room. The transitions between the rooms were a little clunky, requiring us to return to a website and enter another meeting, but no more so than in a traditional promenade performance where the audience are physically required to walk from room to room.

It’s very much the sort of show where you need to keep your device close at hand instead of sitting back to watch the action unfold. There were some sneaky breakout rooms during the Capulet ball, which allowed audience members to leave the main action and visit another character, but you have to be quick to click on these otherwise you end up in the situation we did where we were torn between staying in the main room and entering the breakout, and ended up missing bits of both. But overall the Zoom based part of the show was good fun and very much the sort of experience we have come to expect from Creation Theatre. It would perhaps be a little hard to follow the very early action if you weren’t familiar with the play, but things started to become much clearer as the main events unfolded.

Clare Humphrey as sister Lauren and Kofi Dennis as Romeo in Creation Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet.

After a brief interval, the action moves from Zoom back to a website for the “choose your own adventure” part of the proceedings, with viewers supposedly put in charge of choices that might make a difference to the ending. Although it feels entirely appropriate that none of the decisions make a difference to the inevitable tragic finale, there is never really a sense that the viewer is really making a meaningful choice rather than just clicking at random to select between a couple of similar looking scenes. (There were apparently some QR codes to engage with during this segment but we didn’t come across any.) It is not nearly as enjoyably frustrating as Select a Quest, a true “choose your own adventure” experience where it is possible to while away hours trying to avoid a range of horrible deaths en route to the ultimate ending.

Although it would elongate the running time of Romeo and Juliet, we feel there was a missed opportunity to incorporate a genuinely playable experience where you could attempt different options to see if it was possible to thwart fate. As the final part of the show was based on entirely recorded material, with no return to Zoom, this might have been a more engaging ending to the experience. As it is, the end feels a little flat, with viewers watching rolling credits in isolation instead of clapping the cast on screen as has become customary for live Zoom productions. (There is an option to return to a virtual bar afterwards for a chat but that’s a bit of an introvert’s nightmare!)

Katy Stephens as Nurse and Annabelle Terry as Juliet in Creation Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet

For all the promise of technological wizardry, the strength of this production lies in the performances. Annabelle Terry is excellent as Juliet while Katy Stephens is especially entertaining as Nurse. Decisions to swap the genders of two main characters are also rewarded with Harmony Rose Bremner and Clare Humphrey giving particularly impressive performances as Benvolio and Sister Lauren respectively. Fight scenes are managed well despite the distance between the cast, while animations are used to good effect to convey bloody deaths without any actual mess. Viewed purely as a filmed production, the second Act is really very impressive. It’s just not quite the interactive experience promised.

Romeo and Juliet runs online from 12 to 23 May 2021. We received a complimentary ticket to the press performance on Sunday 16 May.