Baz and the Bard

When youngsters from a run-down estate decided to stage Romeo and Juliet, they brought in a Hollywood hotshot. James Rampton reports
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

An angry young man dressed in military fatigues starts to rap: "Capulet and Montague, claiming dignity, inflaming infamy, but can't they see, their conceit and vanity lead to complete tragedy, in this mad city of despair, fair Harlesden?" The charismatic 17-year-old Shan Abdullah is playing Sampson in a production of Romeo and Juliet featuring amateur actors from a poor estate in north-west London, which is the subject of My Shakespeare, a Channel 4 documentary.

This time last year, Paterson Joseph, the actor, who has starred in productions ranging from Casualty toThe Beach, hit on the inspired idea of returning to his native Harlesden and attempting to win people over to the Bard by putting on a play. He reckoned they could be "converted" in the same way that he was when he read his first Shakespeare play as a painfully shy 18-year-old and it turned his life around. He put his faith in the transformative power of art. Joseph trawled through 300 Harlesden auditionees with no professional acting experience. He then had four weeks to prepare 20 of them for a production at the Jerwood Vanbrugh Theatre at Rada.

"Harlesden is one of those areas people call a ghetto," Joseph says. "[It's] one of the least likely places to have Shakespeare or high art. But I thought, 'Why not?'"

But Joseph, a first-time director, was not left on his own to tackle this daunting task. The producers of My Shakespeare gave the project some vital back-up - and a bit of big-screen gravitas - in the shape of Baz Luhrmann, the film-maker responsible for the most celebrated updating of the Bard in recent years, William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes.

Luhrmann was invited to act as a mentor for the project - a role he was happy to fulfil. He feels that as his film was made 10 years ago, the time is now ripe for someone else to subject the play to a radical reinterpretation. Throughout the four-week rehearsal process, Luhrmann was in constant contact with Joseph via a video link to his Sydney home. At one point, Luhrmann gives Jonathan Taylor, the young man playing Romeo, crucial tips about inhabiting his obsessive character: "Romeo is the super-romantic hero. He's in love with the idea of being in love. He's in love in a ridiculous, almost chemical way, like he's addicted to love for the sake of it.''

Luhrmann emphasises the universality of Shakespeare's work. "He was able to tell a story that everyone got, no matter how simple your mind or how complex," he says. "So Shakespeare's genius was finding a way of telling stories that could play for all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds."

Muska Khpal, who plays Juliet, is an 18-year-old science student; she only came to this country from Afghanistan eight years ago. Her dream is to become a doctor and open a clinic in Afghanistan. Mustafa Iman, a 17-year-old A-level student who takes the role of Mercutio, is a refugee from Somalia, and reveals that he saw people dying there "right in front of me".

The role of Romeo is played by Jonathan Taylor, a magnetic 22-year-old. Now a youth worker, he has been stabbed in the back twice during a street fight. He recalls the moment his mother came to see him in the hospital: "I just broke as soon as I saw my mum. All that toughness went straight away. My sense now is that every day in my life I'm going to meet someone I don't like. But am I going to fight them all? No. Now I'm able to say, 'Just let it go, man, let it go'."

Romeo and Juliet very much chimes with his experiences. "I knew nothing about Shakespeare beforehand, and when I first got the part, I couldn't understand a word of it," Taylor says. "But you become like a sponge and just absorb so much information. The play reflects my own life. I've discovered that the stories which arise in Romeo and Juliet are still relevant. There is still young love, prejudice and hatred. I could easily identify with the idea of the gang culture in the play. When you grow up in Harlesden, you're surrounded by it and you just have to do your best to get through it."

Of course, the whole idea of My Shakespeare has the potential to be terribly worthy - but all cynicism starts to ebb at the opening night. There is a palpable feeling of excitement in the air. That only increases as the auditorium fills with the cast's friends and family - not your average West End audience, but they lap up the show and greet the curtain calls with the sort of whooping and hollering.

Given that the actors only had four weeks to rehearse, the production is pretty good. The contemporary Harlesden setting - lads in hooded tops and baseball caps - lends the play an air of street authenticity. The cast have got to grips with the text, and some of the young actors, especially Taylor and Iman, could go very far indeed.

'My Shakespeare', 7pm, Monday, C4