Rumble, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Shakespeare at street level
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The Independent Culture

Rumble, which starts a British tour this month, was a hit at the 2004 Edinburgh Fringe. It keeps its speed and attack, while benefiting from the larger stage of the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Director Markus Michalowski has worked as a fight director, and this is a fight director's Romeo. The lovers, sweet enough, fade quickly into the background. The heart of Rumble is in its brawls, confrontations, street fights and street dances: fast, spectacular and bitingly athletic.

The international cast speak a mixture of languages, with a single snatch of Shakespeare at the beginning. The story is told in dance and gesture, with choreography by Lorca Renoux, a French spray-painter who danced with Pina Bausch. Dancers move on and around a scaffolding set, film projections showing different urban settings. Dmitri Jourde's Mercutio changes channels with a mobile phone, then tries to sell it to the front row.

The gangs dominate the story - swagger, macho posturing, male friendships and loyalties. These are already dominant images in hip-hop, and Michalowski makes them vivid on stage. Romeo and his friends lark about, playing beat-box games, doing a lot of heterosexual crotch-grabbing.

Gatecrashing the Capulet party, they wear grotesque masks, exaggerations of their characters. Benvolio, the long-limbed Pat von Bardeleben, has a beak-nosed mask that goes with his gangling, eccentric dances. Sefa Erdik's Romeo wears an open-mouthed baby face, all innocence.

Love isn't the point of this story. Erdik does dance a balcony scene with Ulrike Reinbott's Juliet, here called Julia, but it's overshadowed when the friends return for a comic-grotesque number - masks turned back to front, limbs apparently bending the wrong way.

This isn't the first hip-hop Romeo to emphasise the male relationships: Rennie Harris's version left Juliet offstage throughout. The style lends itself more readily to swagger than to lyricism. The strongest sexual tension appears in the first street fight. Ann, a female member of the Cap gang, struts up to kiss a Montague boy - then, having drawn him in, floors him with a vicious shove and kick. It has more impact than anything Julia does with Romeo.

Michalowski's fights are terrific, dramatically conceived and varied in pace. In the final brawl, the two sides trade insults then call a formal hip-hop duel. The dancing is exciting and ruthless: one-handed handstand hops, headspins, body-popping, all given a hard, aggressive edge.

This scene also has the show's most shocking moment. Romeo offers his hand to Tybalt, who stares in disbelief before spitting into his palm. The shock is as much from Romeo's action as Tybalt's: his hope for reconciliation goes against an entire culture.

Michalowski is better at evoking that culture than at questioning it. Mercutio's death is well staged, with Jourde still clowning and his friends moving in and out of anger and disbelief. But it fails to cut through the laughter and energy generated by the earlier fight scene: the audience is still on a high. The show doesn't have much room for tragedy.

With Mercutio's death, the story is really over. Michalowski skips all that business with sleeping potions and banishment. If Romeo kills himself, it's because Mercutio's death was his fault: in this version, gang loyalties matter more than romantic love.

Rumble isn't really Romeo; it has different priorities. It works because of the dances, a virtuoso display of different hip-hop styles. At the end, the cast return for an exhilarating burst of pure dancing, a reminder to the audience of this show's athletic strengths.

Touring to 26 March (www.rumbletour.co.uk)

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