Romeo and Juliet

Caroline Clegg, Founder and Director of Feelgood Theatre talks to Frankly My Dear UK about their new promenade production of ROMEO AND JULIET

Following the success of their 2017 production of MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, award-winning theatre company Feelgood Theatre Productions make a welcome return to Manchester’s Heaton Park to stage William Shakespeare’s classic love story, ROMEO AND JULIET.

Fusing music from Gounod to the Stone Roses, with sword fighting and dance by graduates from the Northern Ballet School, this beautiful site-sympathetic piece transforms Heaton Park into the set for the two young star-crossed lovers whose deaths ultimately reconcile their feuding families.

The show journeys through the park as audiences witness the passion of love at first sight between Romeo and Juliet, following them as they become an overpowering force that supersedes all other values, loyalties and emotions.

Ahead of its opening at Heaton Park next week, Caroline Clegg, Founder and Director of Feelgood Theatre, talks to Donna Kelly of Frankly My Dear UK about the ambitious new production and how Manchester and Heaton Park play a unique part in Shakespeare’s classic play.

Frankly My Dear UK (FMD): Can you start by telling us a little bit about your production of ROMEO AND JULIET and what audiences can expect to see?

Caroline Clegg (CC): The play is based in Heaton Park around Heaton Hall which is a Grade I listed building built in 1790 which has just been restored on the outside. We are performing Shakespeare’s ROMEO AND JULIET but we’re incorporating some of the family history of the Egerton family who used to live at Heaton Hall. We’re trying to cherish the history of the park as we move around from scene to scene. We start with the prologue as if it’s the Egerton family performing a production of ROMEO AND JULIET so that brings in the family history and then we move around the park. Heaton Hall becomes Lord and Lady Capulet’s house. Then we move into the woods where we encounter the Montagues and the Capulets fighting. The ball scene happens in front of the hall so it’s a splendid ball put on by the Capulets with 16th Century costumes. There are beautiful masks and costumes, a sword fight and a cast of 16 actors, dancers and singers who move from scene to scene throughout the beautiful park. 

FMD: This production follows the success of MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM last year which was almost made for an outdoor performance. What made you pick ROMEO AND JULIET this time

CC: I think the story of star-crossed lovers is a beautiful one and as a Shakespeare, I think it’s one that a lot of people know or have studied at school. I’m trying to make productions as accessible as possible by being in the park but it’s also kind of an accessible show because whether you’ve seen the Leonardo DiCaprio film or West Side Story, it’s one you’re likely to know. We tell it in a very open way so Mantua becomes Manchester. We’re in Heaton Park and we cherish it because of that. I think ROMEO AND JULIET lends itself to that. I often see young lovers strolling in the park on a summer’s night so the text of love, of enemies, of gang fights, all these everlasting stories that just keep being told. I think it’s just a story for our times.  

FMD: There is very much a local feel with this production and you mentioned that you’ve brought in some of the history of the park into the text. How did that idea come about? 

CC: We did the same with MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM last year so for us it kind of feels like natural to do. We’re the resident theatre company here so it’s about us being in the park and not trying to impose something from outside. We rehearse in the park and become the strolling players of the park really.  

FMD: Can you tell me a little bit more about how Heaton Hall plays a part in the production? I believe audiences get a special glimpse inside the hall which is usually closed to the public? 

CC: We go inside Heaton Hall so audiences get to see inside the Hall. We did it last year with MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. It became Theseus’ house and we all went inside for the wedding feast. Kirsten Flanagan who is the manager of Heaton Hall has been so welcoming in making it happen for us because it’s not easy with all the security. They’ve just spent millions over the last four years on renovating the exterior of the house and it looks beautiful and for us to set it off with period costumes is just an added bonus. It is also kind of a special treat to go inside the hall because it’s normally closed. It’s become such a part of the play that you will feel like you’re walking into the Capulet’s home. It’s also the Egerton’s home and in our play, they are putting on this production. The Egerton’s were a very musical family and a very theatrical family and it’s all stemmed from that. 


FMD: I believe music also plays a big part in the production? Can you tell me more about this? I believe as well as music from the era, you’re also incorporating songs from Manchester bands into the play?

CC: Yes. Gounod is featured but all of the pieces are performed as acapella harmony so we don’t bring out instruments. We’ve got 16 people so you feel surrounded by the harmonies. You can hear them but you can’t always see them. We don’t go into a full-blown musical but Romeo and Juliet have a duet and without giving away any spoilers, SONGBIRD comes into it at one point. There are snatches of songs which weave itself into the lines and sometimes underpin so it feels like it’s a soundtrack. We have an opera singer who is also an actress playing Juliet and two other opera singers in the cast. We also have two beautiful dancers who have just graduated from the Northern Ballet School so we can incorporate dance into it. It’s a real crossover and fusion of music, dance and text. 

FMD: One of the challenges with promenade productions is that the flow of the piece can sometimes be interrupted as the audience walk from scene to scene. How have you dealt with this challenge?

CC: We use a lot of music. It’s like stitching or suturing it together so the soundtrack kind of leads you. What we found is that that a move only happens when a character goes on a journey or goes out of a scene so you want to follow them to follow the story. It feels logical. You don’t move for every scene so you might be in one place for 20 minutes and then you move to a different place, but you follow the energy of the character. The music is a thread running through it all the time. 

FMD: The weather will no doubt, also play a part and Manchester is famous for its rain. How are you prepared for this, particularly as the actors are in period costume? 

CC: The first thing I asked them when they auditioned for us is “do you mind getting wet?” [laughs]. To be honest, we don’t even talk about the rain. We have extra sets of costumes just in case we can’t get them dried in time but we just carry on. We got drenched a few times last year but it’s the nature of it and that’s what you sign up for as a performer. For the audience, it becomes like Dunkirk spirit. If we carry on, they carry on and we usually get a louder applause when we do a wet show.  

FMD: Looking at past productions, its clear Feelgood Theatre is certainly familiar with Shakespeare. What is it about his plays that seem to resonate with audiences?  

CC: I think it’s because the stories give you so many archetypal characters, whether it’s a tyrant like Macbeth or star-crossed lovers like Romeo and Juliet. They offer us so many metaphors. Just look at the gangs in ROMEO AND JULIET and WEST SIDE STORY – we only have to be in any city to see that. We’re playing it very sort of traditional but you can translate it into something very contemporary as well. It works no matter what you do to it because the stories are real-life. They are genius plays. They are completely timeless. 

Feelgood Theatre’s production of ROMEO AND JULIET runs at Manchester’s Heaton Park from 25 July to 12 August 2018.