Nerves and excitement fizz in the air at Chelsea Theatre in southwest London. The cast of Intermission Youth Theatre, a charity getting young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to perform Shakespeare, huddle in groups, running their lines over and over again. It’s T minus six days until their new production Juliet & Romeo opens. Rehearsals are long, and often follow busy days at school, college or work, but as one cast member points out, they’d rather be here than anywhere else.
Today’s rehearsal carries extra weight, as the cast are being visited by Intermission trustee Mark Rylance, who watches a scene from the show and hangs around to offer advice. The heavyweight thespian has worked with this year’s cohort of 16- to 25-year-olds throughout the charity’s 10-month training programme, running virtual masterclasses for them with stars such as Whoopi Goldberg, Daniel Kaluuya, Andrew Garfield and David Oyelowo during lockdown.
At the helm of the group’s first post-pandemic production is artistic director Darren Raymond, who set up the organisation back in 2008 in collaboration with a local church. At the time, Raymond was touring as Othello, but had always wanted to work with young people as a way of “giving back” to those growing up in areas with “high levels of deprivation” like he experienced growing up in east London. In an industry that is still so dominated by white people, a grassroots-level production like Juliet and Romeo, which features a majority Black cast, feels fairly radical.
It was Raymond’s ability to see Shakespeare “differently” that drew Rylance to Intermission. The first time the pair met, Raymond had been teaching monologues to a small group of young people, says Rylance. “Because they didn’t come from the culture and they didn’t come from the profession, there’s no reason for them to be doing it other than they were fascinated and loved expressing themselves.” There’s an obvious friendship and mutual respect between Raymond and Rylance, who are prone to finishing each other’s sentences and make it clear that this is an environment where everybody should feel comfortable.
Raymond’s non-precious approach to Shakespeare is at the heart of each Intermission production, where the cast collectively choose a show that they can “breathe their own lives into”. That space to play around and improvise on the almost year-long course, Rylance says, is a real “luxury”. “Spending nine months… that’s slow cooking at a very low temperature gradually, so you’re not killing anything,” he explains. “So often in the professional theatre, you might get four weeks, five weeks, rarely six weeks to rehearse... As an actor, certainly when I first entered the profession, I was really depressed, it didn’t feel creative at all… You become part of a machine rather than feeling that [you’re involved in] a collective expression of what’s happening now.”
Allowing the cast to lead also means the show focuses on issues that matter to them today. This year’s production is a gender-flipped Romeo and Juliet, the two star-crossed lovers living in modern day London against the backdrop of coronavirus and Black Lives Matter protests. Sixteenth-century Verona may feel worlds away from 2021, but as Raymond points out, Friar John fails to deliver his letter to Mantua because he’s forced to quarantine due to a plague. Juliet and Romeo, in comparison, opens at a Covid-19 testing centre.
Shakespeare, Rylance says, has always had the ability to connect to the current moment. He should know, having played everyone from Ariel to Richard III to Twelfth Night’s Olivia across his 40-year career. He remembers portraying Hamlet at the Barbican theatre in 1989 on the day of the Tiananmen Square massacre. “I saw that picture of the man standing in front of the tank, and I looked up in the middle of the play, and the auditorium lights... suddenly looked like the lights of a tank,” he recalls. “The line that I had to say was, ‘The time is out of joint. O cursed spite / That ever I was born to set it right.’ And I suddenly just thought of that man standing in front of the tank and thinking, ‘How did I end up here, that I’m the one who has to stand in front of this tank and stop it.’ You get that with Shakespeare a lot. It keeps on connecting with the times you’re in.”
Both men believe that separating Shakespeare and performance, which happens in many UK schools, where scenes are removed from their context and reduced to language analysis exercises, is the wrong way to go. Rylance in particular balks at this idea. “If you were taught the words of ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ or ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’... and [go], ‘Do you see how this rhymes with this’ and ‘this line is inspired because Mick Jagger did this when he was 16 and that’s – ’” he lets out a comical snore – “compared to hearing it sung and seeing him dance around. That’s what you’re doing with Shakespeare when you take it out of the medium it was written for.”
For the young people of Intermission, performing with the group allows them to develop their “confidence, self-esteem, self-awareness” on and off stage. Many of the members wouldn’t usually leave their London boroughs, Raymond says, but this production opens them up, giving them “that permission to be who they are in this world, and know that they can access whatever they want to access, in line with anybody else”. A 2020 study found that “concerns about feeling uncomfortable or out of place” were one of the biggest hurdles preventing non-white actors from pursuing a career on stage, and Rylance says more initiatives like Intermission are needed to “get to the root of the problem”.
“It’s easy to think that you can just change the face of the theatre, but the face isn’t where the illness of things being unequal, and not reflecting society where we live, is,” he explains. “It’s the same thing we did when we weren’t doing well in the Olympics [and] in football… the change came by giving support at the root of those professions, to youth clubs and to youth gymnastics and youth bicycle rides. Now, you see a completely different scenario.” Raymond is in agreement. “We say that there’s a cost to [funding] the arts, but listen, there’s money in this country and it needs to be distributed in the right way,” he says. “We’re playing catch-up... the Black community has been disregarded for centuries and that needs to change.”
‘Juliet and Romeo’ runs at the Chelsea Theatre until 4 December
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