Romeo and Juliet…but stay 5 metres apart please.

Mal chats to Nick Evans about his new production of Romeo and Juliet

We have all struggled to carry on doing the things we love during the past year taking into consideration the restrictions and obligations placed upon us by the Pandemic. But people are clever, and they adapt.  That is certainly true of Swansea born theatre director Nick Evans.  Nick was recently given the job of directing a West End calibre version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet which would be broadcast via the internet over Valentine’s week.  Oh, and he could only have one actor in a room at any one time.

Nick Evans with Mark Hamill aka Luke Skywalker

I first worked with Nick when he was running the West Glamorgan Youth Theatre (WGYT) and working at Gorseinon College.  Nick asked if I would like to work with WGYT on one of their summer residential courses.  The idea was to write a new musical with the students and perform it at the National Eisteddfod in Velindre, Swansea.

We had an incredibly creative couple of weeks based at Dan Y Coed in West Cross. Nick had an amazing rapport with the students and his passion for theatre was infectious. Its amazing what can be achieved in a short space of time when people work together.

Nick was brought in to help with ‘Hunky Dory’, a film directed by Marc Evans (Jack to a King, The Pembrokeshire Murders) and starring Minnie Driver.  He then said goodbye to Gorseinon and took up various roles in the West End working on Billy Elliott, Mary Poppins and Mamma Mia.  In fact, I had hoped to ‘bring him home’ to direct a musical for me in Swansea’s 50th Anniversary year 2019 but he got offered the chance to direct a massive production of Jesus Christ Superstar in Mexico…I still haven’t quite forgiven him.

Last year, like all of us involved in theatre Nick’s world came to an end.  Every production postponed; every tour cancelled.  Nick asked himself the question

‘What do we do when they take away our theatre?’

Nick has been at the forefront of using digital technology in theatre especially with his production in Mexico.  He first came across Ryan Metcalfe and his company Preevue during his time working on the ‘Bat Out Of Hell’ Musical.  Preevue is a theatre company that specialises in virtual reality theatre spaces and has created 2D and 3D models of theatres from across the world.

So, what do you do when they take away our theatre?  You build a virtual one instead.

It was during one of ‘those ‘conversations we were all having at the time about what can we do that they asked each other could they still make theatre ‘virtually’. Nick thought about it for a couple of days and came saying it might be possible to put together a socially distanced production of Romeo and Juliet.

Where do you start? Like the rest of the world Nick and the producers turned to the internet.

All of the auditions would be socially distanced, people would send in their tapes and Nick would have to cast the show without meeting them.

Having seen how Nick works with actors I can imagine the way he charmed and enthused them.  ‘This’, he said, ‘was going to be their love letter to the stage, it would be Guerrilla Theatre, a hybrid between theatre and film.’

Once cast Nick spent a couple of days on Zoom with the cast going over the text.  There followed 4 days in a massive rehearsal space, full of perspex partitions.  Everyone had to be 5 metres apart and there could only be 6 people in the room at the same time. Nick was one, Ryan as one of the producers was another and the nurse was the third; which meant that at the most Nick could have 3 socially distanced actors in the room.

Next, Nick would film each actor separately against Green Screen.  He would throw them their cue line and give them an imaginary spot on the wall for an eye line…and as Nick says, ‘hope for the best’.

‘But what about Romeo and Juliet’, I asked Nick, surely a production about the most famous ‘star crossed’ lovers in theatrical history needs an embrace, needs… a kiss. 

Nick explained that they had one day for the two actors, Sam Tutty and Emily Redpath to actually be together. This involved a nurse and the most up to date lateral flow tests.  Both actors were tested twice during the day itself.  Nick was also tested. He said that when the test came back negative it was like the end scene of the film ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, everything was back to normal.

Of course, the following day it wasn’t again, it was back to a socially distanced square one.

The production opens with Sir Derek Jacobi sat in the front row of the balcony of an empty theatre. 

‘How on earth did you get Derek Jacobi’, I asked Nick.  As well as wanting to create theatre in a time of Pandemic Nick and the producers wanted to raise funds for those actors, creatives and technicians who haven’t been able to work for over a year.  A percentage of any funds raised form the online streaming will go to ‘Acting for Others’, a Charity that,

Provides financial and emotional support to all theatrical workers in times of need.

The charity is supported by some of the biggest names in British Theatre; Dame Judi Dench, Sir Kenneth Branagh and Sir Derek Jacobi.  Nick said he invited Derek to be involved in the production, he said yes, and then like many of the others in the show recorded his part at home.

Nick Evans in rehearsal with Sam Tutty

I suppose the temptation would have been to go for an all star cast but Nick’s not like that.  In fact, when the star of the musical ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ sent in his audition tape being ‘famous’ could have counted against him except, as Nick says, his audition tape was extraordinary.  The Theatrical gods were smiling on this production. A day or so after being cast as Romeo Sam Tutty won his first Olivier.

As I was looking through the cast list it was terrific to see the name Helen Anker.  Helen starred in the first touring production of Cappuccino Girls in 2009 and has since starred in Mamma Mia.

The production has already received a 4 star review form the Guardian and goes live tonight at 7.30pm and streams online until Saturday 27th February.

Tickets start from £20.  Bookings can made here https://www.romeojuliet2021.com/tickets

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