Bringing Romeo & Juliet into 2019 as ACT prepare for their next Shakespeare play

ACT are returning to Bradford Cathedral for their tenth play at the venue, presenting ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in the Cathedral grounds at the end of July. We caught up with the director Alison Rooks to find out more about the company, their approach to the play and the challenges of performing outside.

Juliet (Catherine Bailey) and Romeo (Harry Rundle) in rehearsals for the summer performances

Could you tell us a little about ACT?

ACT – or Actor’s Community Theatre – started out in the Bradford Playhouse as their in-house theatre company, though at that time it wasn’t feasible to continue, so the company split-away quite a few years ago. Several of the members who are performing in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ were in ACT at the start. We started performing Shakespeare at Bradford Cathedral around 2008 and have performed here every year apart from when there was work being down outside to the Cathedral. This will be our tenth play at the Cathedral, and we’ve also done some at the Bradford Playhouse including ‘Twelfth Night’, ‘All’s Well That End’s Well’ and ‘Macbeth’.

As a company we are a little stateless and don’t have a home, as such, and that’s been quite difficult for us. With the Shakespeare plays we have built up a strong following through the partnership with the Cathedral and that’s worked really well. And the fact that even if it’s raining we can come inside; people in the audience know they’re going to get a show no matter what happens!

We did, one year, move it inside within half-an-hour so it works really well!

Aside from your Shakespeare plays, do you do any other performances?

Less now than we used to do, and that’s again due to us not having a base. We do have a plan to do a play called ‘Suffragettes’ later in the year, around November. That was scheduled for last year but was hit by illness, so we had to postpone. That will hopefully be in Bradford City Hall.

We used to do three or four a year – sometimes it would be a script-in-hand play – but we’re looking at new areas. The cast we have for ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is super; they’re so enthusiastic and committed.

In disguise!

‘Romeo and Juliet’, arguably Shakespeare’s most famous play. What inspired you to pick that for this year?

About three years we did ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ and we had some really good young lads in that, and I wanted to direct one of them as Romeo. He’s no longer a member of ACT but we do have an excellent new Romeo. I knew that when I stop work and I’ve got more time I’d like to direct ‘Romeo and Juliet’. I love the language and I like the tragedies the best anyway. We do tend to do the comedies when we come to Bradford Cathedral as they perhaps arguably work better outdoors. Some of the tragedies would be hard for us to cast. What we look for are the plays that we can cast, but for me it was always going to be ‘Romeo and Juliet’ or nothing!

Would you class yourself as a Montague or a Capulet?

I haven’t actually thought about that! Of course Mercutio is the most fun part. I have read somewhere that argued that Shakespeare killed him off when he did as he was going to be a more interesting character than Romeo! I don’t know. I’m going to go away and think about that!

Abram (Keith Wilcock), Samson (Edmund Davies) and Gregory (Joe Ogden) get physical.

How have rehearsals been going?

They’ve been going great! The cast have been fabulous since the workshops at the beginning. It’s going to be a really good cast: they are working so well together. We are very much an ensemble company; we don’t have divas or leading lights. Everyone is working together and they’re very committed. Already some of them are on scripts-down, even though they don’t need to be until July. No matter how stressful the planning is when I go to rehearsals their performances lift me back up!

We imagine learning Shakespeare must be a challenge?

Yes, particularly Juliet, who is in every act. There are five acts and what we’ve done at the start of rehearsals is do an act each night and go through it twice. That’s more for getting the meaning of the text, which we did for the first two weeks. Then we started looking at the moves, with entrances and exits, because this Cathedral has its own layout, which those of us who’ve been here a few years are used to, but the new members aren’t. Plus we have to work on two sets of entrances and exits in case we have to come inside! But we have a very adaptable cast.

The role of Juliet seems to be coming so naturally to the actor. I think different people have different skills in studying the part. Actually we don’t learn lines, we study the part. If you learn them by rote it’s very easy to forget them. But if you learn the picture of the scene, then you’ll learn where you are and carry on. Of course it’s not the most every-day language to learn, but sometimes the iambic pentameter helps. If you work on the rhythm and think about how that goes then that helps, but everyone has their own way of doing it.

Tybalt (Asad Syed) and Mercutio (Jonathan Green) face-off.

What would you say to entice someone along that has never seen Shakespeare before?

You’ll love it! It’s not just – spoiler alert! – every one ends up dead! The language is just lovely. The thing about Shakespeare’s plays is that they have a lot of language that people don’t understand now. It was relevant at the time, but not as relevant now. We’ve cut out all that – it’s gone! The play is normally at least three hours, but we’re doing it in two. All the difficult material that people won’t understand is gone. We don’t let actors speak works that they don’t understand because if an actor doesn’t understand what they’re saying, then the audience won’t understand what they’re saying. If it’s done properly and it’s done well then you’ll certainly understand it! It’s got beautiful language, a great plot and a fabulous cast. And an amazing director of course!

I would say to definitely come: it’s a great first Shakespeare play to see as people have an idea of the story anyway. It’s not an obscure one, so it’s a good starter.

So you’re being respectful to the text, but making it suitable for a modern audience?

It’s the original Shakespeare but we’ve changed it slightly. Some of the jokes just don’t make sense as they’re relevant to the 16th century, but not relevant now. Some of the references wouldn’t make sense to anyone so they’ve gone! Some of the poetry has gone, which I’m quite sad about, to fit it into two hours, but there’s much of it left. I’ve said it in my director’s note for the programme: why say ‘the Sun’s rising’ when you can say ‘Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day / Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.’ I love that line! Come along – it’s fab!

Do you have a favourite scene or moment in the play?

I do like the scene where Romeo and Juliet have just woken up after their first night together as that has a lot of lovely poetry in it. And don’t be put off by me saying poetry: it’s just poetic language; the way they talk about things in such a beautiful way. I do like that scene very much.

If people are inspired by your performances in July, how can people find out more and get involved with future productions?

You can search for ‘Actors Community Theatre’ on Facebook or speak to us on the nights. We’re around afterwards if anyone wants to have a chat with us afterwards. We’re still looking for people who want to be involved with ‘Suffragettes’ and the Shakespeare play next year. We tend to put out audition calls around January time. They will be on our Facebook page, or you can be put on our e-mail list when we call people up?

Director Alison Rooks at the recent Centenary Festival.

Can you give us any sneak previews of your plans for next year’s play?

It’s not been confirmed yet as what we need first is the director, as it’s director-led. I think this year a suggestion was ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’. It will depend on someone coming forward.

Performing outside must be a unique experience?

Yes, and especially around here, as you might get the odd helicopter or quad bike, but the actors know to stop, wait and carry it on. It never phases us! There was a year when they were building the Broadway centre and on the Saturday matinee we had all the building work going on followed by a parade! It was a challenge but we rose to it and everybody could hear what was being said.

For someone who has never acted outside before, you’ve got to learn to project your voice, and the audience has to be able to hear everything that is said, especially when we do the balcony scene via the song-room!

You can see ACT performing ‘Romeo and Juliet’ from Thursday 25th – Saturday 27th July 2019, with performances at 7:15pm, with an additional matinee on the Saturday at 2:30pm. Tickets can be bought from bradfordcathedral.eventbrite.com, by coming to the Cathedral office or by calling Eve on 0113 393 0929. Tickets will also be available on the door.

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