I saw an actor, they saw Romeo: Angela Hillyard sees Shakespeare in a different light, thanks to a noisy group of enthusiastic fellow theatre-goers

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AT A recent production of Romeo and Juliet in Bedford, the usual provincial theatre-goers were in evidence: rows of sponsors' employees, parties of schoolchildren and a group of us from the local community college literature class, eager for any crumb of culture coming our way. This audience was well behaved, respectable and boring.

Then the atmosphere changed, for into the row of empty seats behind us tumbled a group of mentally and physically handicapped young people with their carers. Some could not sit properly, their legs not fitting into the small space allocated. Others could not breathe properly and wheezed throughout the play. Still more were too short to see unless they sat right forward, leaning heavily on the backs of our seats.

At once they became involved, with the actors, with the props and with each other. None was quiet. One young woman was enthralled by Romeo. She instantly recognised him whatever change of costume he wore and whether or not he was in a crowd. Each time she called out loudly: 'Here he is, here's Romeo.'

The production was most imaginative, with its mafioso-style costumes. Factional fighting erupted, the use of sword and stick coupled with much bloodshed and noise. The young woman behind hated all this violence. 'Take me home, take me home,' was her repeated cry. 'Cover your face up and don't look,' was her friend's response, and he gave her a large scarf.

He was a young man with gangling legs who talked incessantly, to the loud accompaniment of 'Shushes' from the carers. He helped draped the scarf and comforted the distraught Down's syndrome girl who lay prostrate at every sign of trouble on stage. Annoyed, we turned round and glared, shushing in our turn, but to no avail.

'Why have they brought them here?' I asked myself angrily. 'They can't appreciate the play and they won't let me. I've paid a lot of money for the privilege of having my evening ruined.'

Then compassion took hold of me, and I tried to come to terms with my hostility. Why shouldn't this group of handicapped youngsters see a Shakespeare play, just because we judged it as being beyond them? From then on, I tried to see the play through their eyes.

Their inability to distinguish fact from fiction was brought home by the death of Mercutio. As the victim lay dying, the young woman screamed, 'Is he dead, is he dead?' and, of course, this was repeated a few moments later with Romeo's revenge on Tybalt. The wedding night scene brought lots of 'Oohs' and 'Aahs', particularly at the dramatic entrance of the double bed. I wondered just how realistic this romp would be, for Juliet, in spite of being only 13, had so far been a little tart. But nothing provocative took place and I did not learn much about their views of sex.

Death, it seemed, disturbed them far more. 'Is she dead, is she dead?' they cried, at the sight of the drugged, seemingly lifeless Juliet.

Later, in the bedroom scene when Friar Laurence entered and struck the ground with his stave, silencing the grieving Capulets, two words were added to the script that resounded throughout the auditorium. 'Thank you,' shouted the hysterical girl, overcome by the tragedy and the hullabaloo. All eyes turned to the source of this interruption, for she had voiced the response of us all. She, together with the Capulets, really thought Juliet dead, and despite assurances from her carers, she could not cope with the idea. 'I want to be sick,' she said, with such conviction that I leaned forward in my seat. So did my neighbours.

The eerie mausoleum scene with mist swirling over the tombs brought a deep intake of breath from the row behind, and when Romeo climbed in beside his bride, the scarf was pulled over the face again. She wept.

'Do they realise it is only acting?' I thought when all the characters miraculously appeared at the end for the applause. Those behind cheered and clapped, especially for Romeo. The actors were aware of the immense response from this section of the audience, for Romeo blew them a kiss, which pleased everyone, especially the young woman, who exclaimed: 'I love Romeo.'

As the curtain fell, I felt this group had lived the play, while we had merely watched it.