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Imaginative double-dose of Shakespeare comes to Norwich

PUBLISHED: 08:48 06 June 2017 | UPDATED: 08:49 06 June 2017

Twelfth Night. The Watermill Theatre. Photo credit Scott Rylander

Twelfth Night. The Watermill Theatre. Photo credit Scott Rylander

Copyright Scott Rylander 2017

The Watermill Theatre is bringing Twelfth Night and Romeo & Juliet to Norwich complete with indie-rock soundtrack, a 1920s prohibition setting and gender-swap casting explains actress Victoria Blunt.

Twelfth Night. The Watermill Theatre. Photo credit Scott RylanderTwelfth Night. The Watermill Theatre. Photo credit Scott Rylander

A nightclub with a soundtrack featuring hits by the likes of Mumford and Sons, The Vaccines, The Civil Wars and Hozier; and a 1920s jazz club where the sounds of the time comes from the likes of Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.

These aren’t the locations that first spring to mind when you think of Shakespeare but they are the settings for a boldly reimaged double-dose of the Bard that comes to Norwich Theatre Royal next week.

The Watermill Theatre is bringing its brand new production of Twelfth Night (June 6, 7.30pm/June 9, 7.30pm and June 10, 2.30pm) alongside a revival of its 2016 hit Romeo & Juliet (June 7, 7.30pm/June 8, 2.30pm and 7.30pm and June 10, 7.30pm).

The story of all-consuming love is set in a modern nightspot known as the Capulet Club complete with busy bar and a clientele made up of the star crossed lovers and their families. Meanwhile Twelfth Night is set at a time when Europe is still returning to normality after the First World War and prohibition is on everyone’s minds.

The Watermill, based just outside Newbury, is where the acclaimed all-male Shakespeare company, and Norwich Theatre Royal favourites, Propeller started life and they are much acclaimed for productions that bring a modern take to the classic text.

Romeo + Juliet. The Watermill Theatre. Aruhan Galieva and Stuart Wilde. Photo by Scott RylanderRomeo + Juliet. The Watermill Theatre. Aruhan Galieva and Stuart Wilde. Photo by Scott Rylander

Each production features a cast of actor-musicians and there is a host of fast-emerging acting talent taking on the leading roles including Victoria Blunt who will be playing Maria in Twelfth Night as well as reviving her gender-swapping role of Benvolio in Romeo & Juliet which was much acclaimed last year.

“There are five of us who were in the original cast but five of that cast weren’t able to return so we have brand new company members. It is half and half which has shook things up a little bit,” she says of returning to the role in this revived production.

“It was completely different to return to, which is good thing actually because going back to a part that you have been in before is a strange thing to do. You have so many thoughts from before of ‘what if I’d tried this’ or ‘I wish I’d done that’. Luckily I’d kept a diary with lots of notes on my character so I was able to look back on what I’d like to do differently.”

Both productions are directed by Paul Hart, the Watermill’s artistic director, who is building on the company’s reputation for inventive, irreverent and imaginative storytelling. That includes casting female actors in traditionally male parts and vice versa.

“When I first met Paul he was doing Julius Caesar and he cast me in a male role there as well,” says Victoria of how she approached turning Benvolio into a woman. “I’m not a big fan of still playing it as a man. I want to play it very definitely as a woman. I want to find out what a woman would be doing in this situation, how different or how much tougher she’d have to be.

“It adds such an exciting dynamic to it. It is like the recent Twelfth Night at the National Theatre which had Tamsin Greig as Malvolia. The roles work or you can kind a way to make them work. Benvolio in particular because the character’s relationship with Romeo is so close it has never felt strange to play it that way. We also have female Friar Laurence too, while in Twelfth Night our Toby Belch is being played by a woman, an incredible actress called Lauryn Redding, who is also a terrific musician as well. It spins everything into much more interesting territory.”

She says working with Paul Hart was inspiring, especially as he was willing to take a gamble on young actors. “The Watermill has this really rich history of producing really amazing Shakespeare productions that are really contemporary and really edgy. I think he is carrying on that tradition of producing work that is so exciting,” she explains.

“To have a company of actors who have all not been in the industry for very long is brave as it is probably a gamble. But he has a group of young actors who are all passionate and Paul has such a strong vision for what he wants.”

What he wants includes the usual and contemporary settings. “Romeo & Juliet is very contemporary, very modern, whereas Twelfth Night is set in the 1920s, in the prohibition era with lots of jazz. They kind of complement each other in a way because Romeo & Juliet is about civil war between these two feuding families, and Twelfth Night there are so many references to coming out of a period of war, it felt quite right to set it in the 1920s and that strange inter-war period and not quite knowing what was what anymore.”

The choices of music may raise a few eyebrows but Victoria says she was surprised how relevant the lyrics to modern songs were to the text.

Twelfth Night. The Watermill Theatre. Photo credit Scott RylanderTwelfth Night. The Watermill Theatre. Photo credit Scott Rylander

She explains: Shakespeare was writing about universal themes, love and grief and conflict, things we all experience at some level, so when you put them with modern music some of the lyrics fit so closely. They echoes so much of what he was saying, just not in blank verse.”

The music is played live on stage. “Some of the cast are incredible musicians, singer-songwriters, with incredible voices and play every instrument under the sun,” she adds. “We all muck in a play instruments. I don’t really play anything though, so I’ve just learnt the drums. At least by the end I’ll be proficient in something, all this talent must rub off in some way!”

Being inspired by fellow cast members is on her mind as she comes back to Shakespeare after a spell with the West End cast of acclaimed Terry Johnson comedy Dead Funny.

“It was basically a cast of my idols,” she says. “Katherine Parkinson, Steve Pemberton, Rufus Jones, Ralf Little and Emily Berrington, it was a who’s who of comedy acting. It was phenomenal and I learnt so much from doing that. It is all about the old school comedy heroes, Tommy Cooper, Morecambe and Wise and this guy who is an obsessive fan and his wife who is at her wits end with him.”

Victoria is also the brains behind YouTube comedy channel Toilet Break Films or TBF which features a host of short humorous videos and she is also set to appear in the Channel Five comedy Borderline.

Twelfth Night. The Watermill Theatre. Photo credit Scott RylanderTwelfth Night. The Watermill Theatre. Photo credit Scott Rylander

“I love comedy. I love writing it, I love being in it. So that was a huge draw to that and Terry Johnson is one of my favourite writers as well. So it ticked all the boxes for me.”

• Romeo & Juliet & Twelfth Night, Norwich Theatre Royal, June 6-10, 7.30pm, 2.30pm June 8/10, £26.50-£8, 01603 630000,

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