EastIndie: Where did the idea to stage the show originally come from and why did you want to put it on?
Natasha Portwood: As a teenager I had the privilege of playing Juliet in a fairly traditional production and since then I’ve always wanted to revisit Romeo & Juliet, but with a different approach and interpretation. I decided that I wanted to direct this play some time ago, but a long period of convalescence, following a serious illness earlier this year, gave me a real incentive and the time to start working on the production properly.
EI: Why do you think Romeo & Juliet has continued to capture people’s interest over the centuries?
NP: In Romeo & Juliet, Shakespeare has captured so perfectly those initial magical stages of falling for another human being, the moment when those feeling are reciprocated, falling with abandon and the absolute excitement and joy that follows. It’s about the passion of youth, not just being in love and in lust, but also the rage and frustrations that come with being young and those emotions and experiences that shape us and follow us into adulthood. Above all else, this is a play that deals with families, friendship, and relationships in their many forms and the desire to love, to be loved and to belong—I think most people can relate to some or all of the above!
EI: Where do you think Romeo & Juliet rates compared with Shakespeare’s other works?
NP: It’s my personal favorite because not only does it contain some of the most beautiful dialogue in English literature, but because it also deals with many different relationships and emotions on such a real level. What I love about Romeo & Juliet is that although it’s ultimately a tragedy, it’s a play of two halves—the first of which contains some of Shakespeare’s funniest and most colorful scenes, language and characters, and the second of which is full of anger, despair, and heartbreak.
EI: Why did you want to do an all-female version of the show?
NP: As an actress it’s often a challenge to secure parts—there is always a great deal of competition and often fewer female roles on offer than male roles. I’ve been cast as a man several times and I enjoy exploring stories and situations not only from a different person’s point of view, but from a different gender perspective too. In Shakespeare’s time Romeo & Juliet would’ve been performed by an all-male cast, as women were not permitted onstage, but since we have an abundance of exceptionally talented actresses here in Shanghai I wanted to reverse that and give these wonderful women an opportunity to play some of the greatest roles in English drama. As women, we sometimes have to fight or compromise to succeed, but this has been an extremely positive, rewarding and, empowering experience.
EI: What other changes should we expect to see in this adaptation?
NP: Whilst we are performing using the original language, this play is presented in a contemporary setting, focusing very much on youth culture. The fights are conducted using knives, which was particularly important to me to reflect the current epidemic of knife crime amongst young men in the UK. Most of the characters appear as the genders they were written as, with a few notable exceptions—Friar Lawrence becomes Freya, a new age spiritual Earth Mother, rather than a Priest, and Lady Montague has taken on Lord Montague’s dialogue and becomes a single career mum. Finally, Mercutio is the free spirited, non-conformist who refuses to be constrained by labels and the expectations of society.
EI: Do you have a favorite moment, character, or line in the play?
NP: Far too many to mention! However, the first half of this play has me literally crying with laughter, whilst the second half is utterly devastating.
EI: What has been the most exciting part about the process for you so far?
NP: Working with a team of talented, committed, hardworking, intelligent, compassionate, gorgeous, funny people has been an absolute pleasure and watching them breathe life into this production is a dream come true!
EI: Conversely, what has been the most challenging aspect of working on this production?
NP: Directing and creating costumes, as well as other production work, has been my entire life for the last two months—but it’s been worth every minute! Trying to organize rehearsal schedules around sixteen people’s availability was a huge challenge and guiding the rehearsal periods towards performing and away from chatting was sometimes necessary—I’m blessed though to have such a large cast that got on so well with each other!
EI: What lessons have you learned from working on this production?
NP: This is my directorial debut and the most lovely revelation was that as a director you learn so much from your cast—I’d give ideas and in response they would frequently share other perspectives and discoveries, which in turn inspired me further! New ideas have continued to emerge and develop during the performances and being surrounded by that kind of inspiration, creativity, and passion fills me with joy!
EI: What do you hope people will take away from the show?
NP: So often, I see highly polished Shakespeare productions played in a sterile way and his work is often viewed as difficult or made inaccessible to audiences and students. Part of Shakespeare’s appeal is his exquisite way with words, but I also believe he’s still popular today—and why I really love his plays—because the essence of his work is his deep understanding of human relationships and what it is to be human. I want to present Shakespeare in a way that is fresh, thrilling, and relatable to everyone, without sacrificing the brilliant language, and to give our teenage audience members a positive first experience of the Bard’s work. I hope not only to entertain with this beautiful, funny, tragic story, but to move, to provoke, and to inspire a love of William Shakespeare.
There is still time to catch Theatre Anon and East West Theatre’s production of Romeo & Juliet! The show’s second weekended runs from Thursday, December 6 to Saturday, December 8 at FULU Modern Cantonese Restaurant, 4F, 758 Julu Road, Jing’an District, Shanghai. Tickets here.