“I love the fact that the Balcony Scene in Romeo and Juliet technically doesn’t exist…” We asked Six Questions about Shakespeare to Melissa Barrett of South West England-based Sun & Moon Theatre

Which play or area of Shakespeare are you working on right now – and what are you getting from it?

“After Twelfth Night finished in November 2017, we took a break over Christmas, but it’s hard to not reflect on ideas, even when you’re meant to be taking a break. At the moment, we’re looking at Romeo and Juliet, as David (my Co-Artistic Director) and I have a tendency to flip back and forth between plays that we’re itching to do. In 2016, David was eager for us to do The Two Gentlemen of Verona, in 2017 I was keen to do Twelfth Night, and now he has a strong urge to do Romeo and Juliet – a play driven by youth – while we’re still fairly young!

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“We’re getting so much from working on Romeo and Juliet, especially in terms of exciting conversations in these pre-production stages – it feels like striking a match before the candle lights up. We’ve re-read the play, re-watched some adaptations – including the 1936, 1968 and 1996 films, and even an adaptation of the ballet – for inspiration, and chatted about past productions we’ve seen, discussing what works and what doesn’t (for us) in all of these adaptations, and with the play itself. Our intention is also, while we cut the script, to compare the Quartos and the First Folio while we edit, in order to create a script that we’re happy with. Finding our production concept is currently dominating conversation, as Romeo and Juliet is so frequently done that it is tricky to find a concept that really excites or feels unique without being gimmicky. But more importantly the goal is to find a concept that feels fitting right now for audiences today, and yet also feels like a Sun & Moon production, as we’ve been exploring and building our identity as a company over the last few years.

Our summer open-air show is As You Like It. We’re excited about this one as, truth be told, we’re not big fans of this play, and we are hoping by doing it ourselves we will understand why people love it. We have a concept that we’re looking forward to getting our teeth into, and already we are finding wonderful moments within the play as we begin our text sessions with our actors.

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What have you learned about Shakespeare that would have surprised your younger self?

“I think I would have been surprised by how Shakespeare is such a huge part of my life, and that it would invoke such wonderful conversations between friends and loved ones. I’ve had chats about characters, themes, the plays themselves, which could have gone on for hours and hours. When I was first introduced to Shakespeare at 13, when beginning Year 9 at school, I had been warned by others that Shakespeare would be really hard and really boring. To my absolute surprise, I loved it (I give a lot of credit to my old CGP Macbeth book). It felt like a world had opened up and my imagination was captured. I loved reading text that could have so many possible meanings, and exploring such fascinating, layered characters. Did I know at 13 that I would have loved working with Shakespeare so much that I’d do a Staging Shakespeare Masters degree and that I’d set up a theatre company revolving around it? I definitely would have been surprised, but hopefully in a positive way.

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“Being more specific, and based on what we’re doing now, I would have been stunned that different versions of the plays exist – Quartos and Folios – and how editors have such an impact on how audience and readers perceive the plays. I first discovered that in my third year studying English at university. Younger me would definitely have been surprised by how much I love the First Folio and how I use it as a tool in acting and directing. It is such a joy of a text to use, and I love how many discoveries you make and clues/inspirations you get from just looking at First Folio edition (or even a Quarto!). It is like a mini director in the text offering guidance.”

Which Shakespeare character most resembles you?

“Interestingly enough, it may well be the character I most recently played, Viola from Twelfth Night. I remember asking a professional who would come in to work with us on monologues while training with Year Out Drama, a lovely man named Alec Wilson, which character I should consider for speeches. He recommended that I look at Viola, as I seem like a natural Viola. For some bizarre reason, I didn’t follow up on that until four or five years later, when I was cast as Viola in a production while training for my MFA. I suddenly realised what Alec was talking about – that part fit me like a glove.

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“I can relate to Viola. While cross-dressing Rosalind feels more like a natural extrovert, Viola is a natural introvert like myself, who has to play an extrovert in a character like Cesario, and does enjoy this taste of liberty via performance (until things go wrong). I relate to Viola’s empathy, her compassion for others, her diplomacy, her passion, her love for her family, and her personal neuroticism – like me, she’s a dweller who worries a LOT, and has to force herself to not think about it: ‘Time thou must untangle this’. She is a quiet figure, but when it matters, boldness will come to her and she is no pushover – I hope that is me too. On a more trivial note, like Viola, I am no athlete (always had Ds for PE at school), and identify with her terror at being in any kind of physical fight. It’s why we had a boxing scene early on in which she fails against another woman (Orsino’s household, in our interpretation, were all women pretending to be men, partly to highlight Orsino’s denseness) and why we usually cut the ‘A little thing would make me tell them how much I lack of a man’. We didn’t want her argument to be gendered. Our philosophy was, ‘Viola, women can fight, but you can’t’. Playing her in our own production throughout 2017 was an absolute joy.

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“There is the touch of the Hermia in me too – five foot two, in a very loving relationship, but prone to passion and fieriness when crossed, inherited partly from my loving, yet fiery-natured Irish family… ‘Though she be but little she is fierce’. A touch of fiery Hermia spirit helps when running a theatre company!”

If I ask you to give me a Shakespeare quotation, which is the first one that comes to your mind?

“‘A good leg will fall, a straight back will stoop, a black beard will turn white, a curled pate will grow bald, a fair face will wither, a full eye will wax hollow, but a good heart, Kate, is the sun and the moon’ (Henry V). It partly inspired the name of our company.”

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What’s your favourite Shakespeare-related fact, myth, story or anecdote?

“I love the fact that the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet technically doesn’t exist. It has become so engrained in our culture that it gets called ‘The Balcony Scene’, when not once is a balcony mentioned. We’re currently debating whether or not we have one in our own production! It allegedly emerged in Thomas Otway’s play, The History and Fall of Caius Marius, which was inspired heavily by Romeo and Juliet. Otway staged his equivalent scene ‘in the balcony’ and David Garrick used a balcony in his staging of Romeo and Juliet. It’s one of example in how much I love that productions in their place and time can have such a significant impact on cultural consciousness, to the extent that Juliet’s balcony via her ‘house’ (Casa di Giulietta) is an attraction that tourists flock to every year, and that there is even a Juliet Club, in which people write to ‘Juliet’ and get replies from volunteers who answer as ‘Juliet’ – a mythical character. That in itself is fascinating, as it all started when people left letters by Juliet’s ‘Tomb’ back in the 1930s, and the caretaker was so moved that he sent replies, starting this wonderfully bizarre movement. The power of Shakespeare is phenomenal sometimes.”

You have the power to cast anyone in the world (actor or otherwise) to play any Shakespearean character. Who do you choose – and which role do they play?

“I love Classic Hollywood so I have a tendency to cast people in my head who couldn’t possibly be cast because they’re no longer around, and that style of performance is long gone. I’m a big fan of the film The Philadelphia Story,  and watching Katharine Hepburn in that, I would have loved to have seen her take on Beatrice, perhaps with Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart as Benedick.

“Sticking to  Much Ado,  and being more realistic in terms of casting living performers, I love Damien Lewis and Sarah Parish’s performances as Benedick and Beatrice in the Shakespeare Retold adaptation. My partner and I always say that we wish they could play the roles in the actual play. Plus I recently read an interview with Helen McCrory and she said she’d love to play Beatrice opposite Lewis (her husband since 2007) as Benedick. They’d be fantastic.

“Oh, I can’t stop now! I saw Charles Dance recently do a talk and I asked him which Shakespeare roles would he love to perform that he hasn’t played yet, and he said Malvolio, Titus and Jacques – I would love to see him play all three!

Melissa Barrett is the Co-Artistic Director of Sun & Moon Theatre, which she founded with her partner, David Johnson. They will be touring with Shakespeare’s As You Like It in July 2018.

Thursday 21 June – University of Exeter North Piazza, Exeter
Saturday 30 June – Coleshill Organics, Oxfordshire
Sunday 8 July – The RSC Dell Open-Air Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Saturday 14 July – St George’s Park, Bristol (Bristol Shakespeare Festival)
Wednesday 25 & Thursday 26 July – Poltimore House, Exeter
Sunday 29 July – Queen’s Drive Space, Exmouth

Go here to find out more about Sun & Moon Theatre.

From director Shakirah Bourne, new film A Caribbean Dream tells us two things – that Barbados is quite possibly Paradise on Earth, and that Shakespeare travels extremely well

Adapted from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Bourne and producer Melissa Simmonds, the film was made on location on the director’s home island of Barbados. Shot in the picturesque environs of Fustic House, St Lucy, the Shakespeare film it perhaps most resembles is Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing (2012).

But whereas Whedon’s film was shot in stylish monochrome, A Caribbean Dream adds gorgeous hyper-real colours. Stepping amid its intoxicating jungle greens are a Puck (Patrick Michael Foster) somewhat reminiscent of Quentin Crisp, a suitably capricious Titania (Susannah Harker) and a regal, poetic Oberon (Adrian Green).

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Bourne’s film has a lot of fun with stereotypes. The English people are posh and silly, their behaviour inspiring affectionate bemusement in the knowing islanders. And, it must be said, Shakespeare sounds absolutely fantastic in a Barbadian accent
Shakespeare’s tale calls for an ensemble cast, and there are plenty of good performances, including a loveable Lorna Gayle as Bottom, and charismatic Keshia Pope as Helena, spitting out the play’s most famous line: “And though she be but little, she is fierce”.

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It’s a modern-day affair, so the fairies carry mobile phones, but the rude mechanicals are now poor fishermen who add some local folklore of their own.
Crucially for a Shakespeare film, the sound is excellent, and pretty much all the lines are delivered with clarity. There’s a welcome absence of the mumbling (or getting drowned out by sound effects) that often blights modern productions like the 2016 BBC version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

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The upbeat soundtrack includes some jaunty Bajan anthems, and Bottom enamours Titania’s ear with a sweet rendition of “Da Cocoa Tea is a Poison To Me”.
In the tradition of classic Caribbean films like The Harder They Come, the cheap and cheerful feel makes a refreshing change from slick and soulless Hollywood product. And yet, if Hollywood ever gets wind of this simple-but-effective formula, we can expect a big-budget remake of A Caribbean Dream quicker than you can say “Star Wars Trilogy”.

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Although it’s not billed as a ‘straight’ Shakespeare film, it contains a great deal of Shakespeare’s text and, to me, feels true to the spirit of the original. I would also deem it completely suitable for the classroom – apart from one groan-inducing ‘donkey’ joke (although you could argue that this gag is itself Shakespearean).

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For many of the scenes, especially those with the young lovers, it feels like watching a spirited open-air Shakespeare production on a magical Bajan evening. I’d happily sit in that jungle clearing to watch Helena and Hermia (Marina Bye) battling it out while the fairies celebrate with a Caribbean carnival.

A Caribbean Dream is released into UK cinemas (and On Demand via iTunes, Amazon, Google, Virgin Movies) on the 10 November 2017.

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Cinemas
Birmingham, MAC (From 13/12/2017)
Ipswich Film Theatre (From 05/12/2017 )
London, Bernie Grant Arts Centre – Q&A with director, producer and cast (From 12/11/2017)
London, Peckhamplex (From 10/11/2017 )
London, Peckhamplex – Q&A with director, producer and cast (From 11/11/2017)
London, Rio Dalston – Q&A with director, producer and cast (From 12/11/2017)
Manchester HOME (From 15/12/2017 )
Torrington, The Plough Arts Centre (From 16/12/2017)