“But he which bore my letter, Friar John,

Was stay’d by accident, and yesternight

Return’d my letter back”

With those three lines, Shakespeare explains what sealed the tragic destiny of Romeo and Juliet. The convoluted plan that would have allowed them to be together would have worked if only this “Friar John” had delivered the letter. As an immediate cause for the lovers’ tragic end, it does lack certain grandiosity—it is essentially the Elizabethan equivalent of “he got stuck in traffic.” In the 20th-century musical adaptation by Jerome Robbins, West Side Story, this fate flaw had a little more dramatic weight. Anita does not deliver the message on purpose because she is almost gang-raped by the enemy band. Regardless of the reason, in both cases, the audience cannot help but hope the sequence of events to be different. We cringe on our seats as we witness an easily avoidable situation lead to a fatal outcome: Romeo thinks Juliet is dead and kills himself; Juliet wakes up to Romeo dead and kills herself in turn. If only Friar John had been a better carrier, if only the Jets had listened to Anita, if only someone had told Romeo, if only someone had informed Lord Capulet… if only we, the savvy audience, could have done something.

In CoLab Theatre’s new production, Montagues and Capulets, this wishful thinking becomes a possibility. CoLab Theatre, a small theatre company that has acquired an international reputation for their interactive theatre productions that take over the city of London, has tackled the bard in a new production that puts Romeo and Juliet in a rave warehouse during the 90s. The audience is sorted into one of the two houses and becomes immersed in the world of the play with a real promise of agency. But beware: with agency comes responsibility.

Romeo and Juliet in CoLab’s new production Montagues and Capulets. Source: CoLab Theatre

Furthermore, with agency of this kind comes an interesting source of dramatic tension. Since the audience is intimately familiar with the story and most likely prone to supporting the lovers, how can an interactive show make sure that the plot develops within its boundaries? In the same way a playwright designs characters, the interactive production has to carefully design the role of the audience and the limits of their agency. In the case of Montagues and Capulets the house to which the audience is assigned appears as a powerful source of identity. The first minutes of the production are invested in creating a feeling of belonging. The energy of the actors, the rites of initiation, the secrets of their hideout almost unknowingly weave a connection with your assigned family. You are part of their team; you are playing on their side; they are boosting your natural in-group instincts. But as group identity takes over, you almost forget that a complete identification with your house group can have fatal consequences in another level. You want to be part of your house, support the charismatic Tybalt, the charming Mercutio; but are those goals compatible with protecting the lovers? Furthermore, will you even become aware of the likely incompatibility? How can you know that your actions will or will not lead to the demise of the characters with whom you feel that now you have a personal relationship?

This omniscient agency arises as a new dramatic element that can become a core element of a production. Montagues and Capulets does not have the oneiric quality other immersive shows like Sleep No More (which is also an adaptation of Shakespeare) can have; there were times where the Shakespeare text was lost in the large space or under the music, and the smaller precious moments missed in the confusion of the party. Yet the production’s strength lied elsewhere. The fight between Tybalt and Mercutio surprised for its proximity, its solemnity, its personal impact. For those seconds, the action on the stage was emotionally real for the audience, not just an act of theatrical empathy. Instilled in every member, there were two opposing forces that rendered us powerless to the events. When Tybalt fell, there was a true sense of loss, a feeling of failure, of guilt.

Montagues and Capulets has space for many questions of this kind: When do we stay still and allow conflict? Under what circumstances do we fight for what we believe is right? How do we get lost in a crowd and do we even realize we are lost? Whether the audience gets to explore their individual answers to these questions in the world of Romeo and Juliet is, for once, entirely up to them. As individuals trained in an act of spectating that consists of sitting and witnessing, it is hard to step out of our imposed boundaries. CoLab Theatre could assist their audiences in owning their theatrical agency by clearly transmitting the rules of their participation so that the rich world they have created does not remain unvisited because people did not feel invited to play. Interactivity adds another dimension to any production that can throw off the delicate balance that holds the world and story coherence, and thus, the audience investment in the play. There is still plenty of room for improvement, but CoLab Theatre’s Montagues and Capulets is immensely ambitious and brave, paving the way for a new dramaturgy of interactive productions.

CoLab Theatre’s Montagues and Capulets plays until April 27th 2017. More information here.

This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.