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Shakespeare in a pandemic: ‘You can’t have Romeo and Juliet without touching!’

Posted at Jan 06, 2021

As the isolated teen in the hit musical Dear Evan Hansen, Sam Tutty is used to “tap-tap-tapping on the glass”, as he sang in Waving Through a Window. But Covid-19 safety measures for the Olivier award-winning actor’s new production, a modern-day version of Romeo and Juliet, made that literally the case.

Tutty and Emily Redpath play the star-crossed lovers in the filmed theatre production, directed by Nick Evans, which is set in the aftermath of a pandemic. Coronavirus is never mentioned in the production but the masked ball scene features the sort of modern-day face coverings we have grown used to. Throughout rehearsals in London in November the actors had regular temperature checks and stayed socially distanced, often kept on separate sides of a screen.

“Whenever we rehearsed anything that involved close proximity, we had these big Perspex screens,” said Tutty. The actors were filmed individually, against a green screen, apart from the couple’s more intimate dialogue, which was shot in one day. “You can’t have Romeo and Juliet without touching,” joked Redpath, who was tested for Covid along with Tutty before those scenes.

For the rest of the shoot, the actors spoke their lines to a dot on the wall, signifying where the other characters would appear in the final version, which uses CGI lighting and scenery including the backdrop of a stage and auditorium. Tutty described the project as one of the most challenging things he’s experienced because the language of Shakespeare and the camera’s closeups similarly leave one exposed.

Redpath as Juliet and Tutty as Romeo

But this Romeo and Juliet unfolded at such a whirlwind pace that “we had no time to worry,” said Redpath. Rehearsals were partly done on Zoom. “Emily and I would also FaceTime a lot to prepare for the onslaught of lines the next day,” said Tutty. “I’d do one scene, go home and learn the scene for the next day. There was no time to learn the full play, it had to be bite-size.” Neither actor knew the play particularly well before they were cast; Tutty did not properly register what he had signed up for until he was on the way to rehearsals. Redpath, who graduated from Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts in 2019, called the language of the play “horrific and beautiful. Everything is in there. I wanted to cry all the time – and I did! It’s so impassioned.”

The filming was completed in a fortnight, which is remarkable when you consider that apart from a handful of scenes none of the cast were ever performing together. One scene in the production features 15 actors, all of whom were filmed speaking their lines at different studio sessions.

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It all proves, Tutty said, how adaptable UK theatre has become during the challenges caused by the pandemic. “It’s an incredible reflection on how malleable our industry is. We became digital in, like, a month.” High-profile streaming initiatives such as National Theatre at Home have vastly improved access, particularly for those who live outside London, he said. Redpath agreed that the web has opened up access and opportunities for theatre lovers and practitioners, and added that the industry must take this opportunity to change and restart in a more stable and inclusive fashion.

The project was over so quickly that the actors barely had time to get to know each other and, this being a pandemic production, there were no goodbye drinks or hugs goodbye.

  • Romeo + Juliet, from Metcalfe Gordon Productions, is due to be released later this year.