JULIET Forster has cut it as a director of Romeo And Juliet many times. Now she has sliced Shakespeare’s “two the two hours’ traffic of our stage” to 45 minutes, maybe 50, for CBeebies’ show tomorrow morning.
“I did joke about that at rehearsals because my previous production, at Blenheim Palace, ran to three hours and 15 minutes,” says Juliet, York Theatre Royal’s creative director.
She had been lined up for the children’s television production as long ago as December 2019. “Anna Perowne, who has produced the performance, had newly taken over BBC Shakespeare, having worked previously for the Royal Shakespeare Company,” says Juliet.
“It was partly that thing of a new producer looking at it in a new way, wanting to work with a director who would allow more input from the actors.
“She’d found the Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre production of Romeo And Juliet I’d just done at Blenheim that summer, and when we met, we got on immediately. Then, put that together with the fact I’ve done a lot of children’s theatre and plenty of Shakespeare.”
The list runs deep for Romeo And Juliet alone. “In 2005, I did a Family Day at the RSC with children and parents taking part in a Shakespeare workshop,” says Juliet. “I’ve done an interactive version of Romeo And Juliet with some very young children and a youth theatre version at York Theatre Royal.
“I’ve adapted it for five to seven year olds in a way for them to tell the story; I adapted it for a Pilot Theatre production and I’ve directed it with a teenage cast in a play-in-a-week school project I ran with my old company years and years ago in the Midlands.”
Who better, then, to direct yet another variation on Shakespeare’s tragic story of young love and feuding families than Juliet? “We were supposed to record it last May, but the pandemic delayed it until we could kick off working on it again in December,” she says.
CBeebies’ Romeo And Juliet combines Shakespeare’s characters with the additional roles of William Shakespeare himself and a librarian. “What the producer wanted was a good cohort of recognised CBeebies faces and actors, so I watched the other two CBeebies’ Shakespeare shows, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest, to see how they were done,” says Juliet.
“We talked about ‘why do a complicated play for such little ones?’, but then we talked about the positive messages in there: the families putting an end to their feud and the importance of not giving in to bad things too easily, instead looking to live in peace and to put a stop to the fighting.
“That made it a show very much for the CBeebies audience, in this case for two to seven year olds…though lots of older children watch it too; they just don’t admit it!”
Juliet worked with Nathan Cockerill on the script, calling on her past experiences of adapting the text. “I looked back at what I’d left in and taken out for the five to seven-year-olds’ script I wrote and fleshed it out from there, also looking at my Pilot Theatre script to see how I’d edited it down for that show,” she says.
“Nathan was someone who’d worked with CBeebies before, and we worked on a script knowing that Shakespeare and a companion or companions always feature in a CBeebies Shakespeare show. This time Shakespeare is much more involved.”
Juliet has directed a cast of 15, featuring such CBeebies names as Andy Day, Chris Jarvis, Jennie Dale, Gemma Hunt, Rebecca Keatley and Justin Fletcher, of Mr Tumble fame, as Peter the Clown. Zach Wyatt, from Shakespeare’s Globe, will play Romeo; Evie Pickerill, Juliet.
“We rehearsed it and filmed it at Leeds Playhouse, all done and dusted two weeks ago, with just one day of filming with three runs of the show, making it like a piece of live theatre, though we couldn’t have an audience, of course,” says Juliet.
Joining Forster in the production team were designer Rhys Jarman, renewing their creative partnership from A View From The Bridge and The Machine Stops at York Theatre Royal, choreographer Hayley Del Harrison, lighting designer Will Evans and costume designer Mary Lamb.
“We then rehearsed from March 9, five days, then four days of tech and rehearsals, then filming,” says Juliet. “It was absolutely joyful because we were always keeping the young television audience in mind, how to carry them through such a tricky story.
“To have those experienced CBeebies performers and Shakespeare actors was invaluable. They set the tone. That was part of what was interesting for me as I’ve never made anything specifically for the telly before, but at the same time thinking about making something for a live audience, though that wasn’t the case!
“What we had to do was to get the best ‘blocking’ [the cast’s positions on stage], trying to make it as right as possible for the camera, but still making it very theatrical as Shakespeare is theatre.”
CBeebies Presents: Romeo And Juliet will be shown on CBeebies tomorrow (2/4/2021) at 9.30am and soon after on BBC iPlayer.
Copyright of The Press, York