I’m not gonna to lie to you: I walked into Victoria Baths ready to be disappointed by HOME’s production of Romeo and Juliet. I loved their debut outing with ANU, Angel Meadow, so much there seemed little chance the second instalment in their site-specific season could top it. And then there was the venue. People always want to use Victoria Baths for events and performances and, while it is a truly spectacular building, it’s still a big, echoey swimming baths; sound problems are inevitable. They’re still here, but with mics you can just about understand everything. It’s a reasonable compromise to see these spaces used so inventively – designer Ti Green has delivered with a staging that fully inhabits the baths, in three dimensions.
And this is by and large a bold, assured production that delivers more than enough on pure vision to make good theatre, even if it falls short of truly connecting with the heart of the play. From the very first moment, when an Eastern European folksong came at us out of nowhere, and then the Montagues and the Capulets emerged singing from the striped changing cubicles arrayed around the pool, you knew we were in safe hands.
With such a stripped-down set much rests on costume and music and these are strong: all tight Eurotrash spangles and the rackety gypsy barminess of an Emir Kusturica film (in an interview this spring, HOME Artistic Director Walter Meierjohann mentioned the Serbian director’s work as an example of the feeling suggested by the baths’ grand decay, and they’ve nailed it.) Props are employed with great efficiency: a little smoke machine and a wooden bench are brought on and then we’re in the Turkish baths having a shvitz with Capulet, splendidly arrayed in black towels and gold chains, as he barks out orders for his party.
The cast is good overall, with an ensemble that slightly overshadows the lovers, who always felt a little aloof. Griffin Stevens as bumbling Capulet flunky Peter and Rachel Atkins’ as Juliet’s nurse stole every scene they were in. And Ncuti Gatwa as Mercutio moved so beautifully I could have watched him dance all night. There were a few missteps – Romeo breaking into Love Me Do and Crazy in Love during the balcony scene can be excused as a well-intentioned bid to shake up the lines we can all basically recite, and there’s more than a whiff of ham about the penultimate scene, where Romeo writhes on a platform covered with a picture of Juliet’s face.
But when the windows opened to the third location and light and music streamed into the dark, it was a powerful moment. We were led into the final pool which has been filled with 86,000 gallons of water, and what we saw there – well, that would be a spoiler too far. It’s a difficult thing to breathe magic back into a scene where everyone knows what’s going to happen, but HOME have done just that.
Romeo and Juliet, through Saturday October 4, Victoria Baths. (Sadly it's sold out, and the waiting list is closed.)