Merely Theatre is the first genderblind repertory theatre company in the UK. They operate by casting a man and a woman in a set of roles and randomly selecting whether the man or woman will play the role each night, creating five person Shakespeare plays. They were formed in 2010 and performed A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet alongside a new play, Last Man Standing and they revived their production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in their National UK Tour last year alongside Henry V. On this tour they have taken on one of Shakespeares’ most famous plays, Romeo & Juliet, a tragedy of young love amongst the feuding families of Verona and made it their own in their stripped back, gender blind production.
This production was performed at The King’s Theatre, Edinburgh and featured a stripped back set of a series of grey wooden frames draped with black and grey curtains that were used as exits and entrances throughout the play alongside the entrances at the back of the auditorium. Very few props were used throughout the play, mainly only the essential ones being daggers and the poison bottle. As all the actors multiroled, small pieces of costume defined their character for the audience, for example the Capulets all wore pieces of red clothing when they were in role.
Regarding the staging of the production, as it was so stripped back and simple, I did find that it felt a bit too simple to be in such a large space, it felt a little like it didn’t quite fill the theatre in terms of the performance which I found made me feel just like something was missing. I think it would have been better if it had been performed in a smaller, black box theatre. This links in to the main criticism I found of the performance in that it felt too simple and this was recurring throughout the show. The text was cut quite a lot to create a 45 minute first half and a 55 minute second half and there were no transitions between the scenes at all, it was very quick with one scene sending and another immediately beginning which I found gave us very little time to process the previous scene before being thrust into the next. The show was also advertised as having ‘immense energy’ which I found that the actors did but the performance overall lacked, perhaps due to the lack of music and effects which I felt would have given the show more energy and drive.
The actors themselves were wonderful and handled the multi-roling with ease. I particularly enjoyed the performances of Tamara Astor (Benvolio/Nurse) and Hannah Ellis (Mercutio/Capulet/Apothecary) who were very versatile and absolutely hilarious in their respective roles, as the Nurse and Mercutio. I did find that this ‘high energy’ approach did sometimes result in the performances generally being a little melodramatic at times which I didn’t particularly enjoy however I don’t know if this was the theatre style that they were aiming for.
Overall, it was an enjoyable evening and an entertaining production. I absolutely loved the concept of the company and I really wanted to enjoy the performance more but I found that the stripped back approach left me wanting a little more from the show at the end. However, they are definitely doing amazing things in the theatre world and their genderblind productions with equally gendered casts are definitely ones to watch.