No rules for Jules

Let’s shatter this image of Juliet….

juliet romeo and juliet 2.gif

….and trade it with this….

eleanor ireland

Redefining Juliet. You think you know who can play Juliet? Think again – in which six very different young women actors (very tall, very small, fat, wheelchair user, deaf, bald) take on the iconic role of young female beauty and desirability. It challenges notions of who can be Juliet, who can get a sexy part. It’s the brainchild of Storme Toolis, an actor and wheelchair user (you may remember her from playing Nick Lyndhurst’s daughter in New Tricks). Storme always wanted to play Juliet but knew she’d never be cast. So she set about putting on a production herself. The documentary traces the making of Redefining Juliet the show, through to its showcase at the Barbican.

To be honest, Redefining Juliet was a tough, emotional watch. Throughout the documentary, my face became various mood boards of shock, upset, guilt, rage, happiness and surprise. Hovering over the pause button, these women were baring their souls and vomiting their emotions (quite literally) … whilst I was chilling in bed, munching on crisps and watching out of general interest. Their realities were squeezed into 45 minutes for my viewing pleasure and something felt wrong.

Like the Knights of the Round Table at the Ovalhouse, Director Rae McKen encourages the cast to reveal their personal battles and memories for Redefining Juliet. Entwining their memoirs with scenes from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the session bounces their collective voice of vulnerability, bravery and frustration, and embeds their Juliet with personal tragedy and victory.

“Guys are cruel, girls are crueller. Girls do it in a way they don’t realise they are being nasty, they don’t realise they have an effect on you” – Megan Pemberton

Fuming at society’s cruelness, Frankie shares her story about a woman laughing and calling her “a dwarf” during a concert. Eleanor admits removing her wig is a “very big thing” and her friends have to “earn it because I don’t want to be friends with people who can’t handle it”. Being in a wheelchair, Storme reveals the first time she asked for the morning after pill, she received this response: “were you raped?” These stories aren’t just stories, they are the ways of life for these women and their battles of self-esteem is a crucifying watch.

“You’re made to feel physically uncomfortable if you have an intimate relationship with someone because you’re not supposed to do that. That’s not your privilege, it’s somebody else’s” – Storme Toolis

Taking things for granted, I felt guilty to have my hair, hearing, average height and weight, and being able to move freely. Reminiscing my past battles with depression, people constantly pointed out I had “two arms, legs, eyes and ears” so I had no reason to be depressed. At the time, they received my death glare or wet shoulders, but I did neglect these very physical blessings. Snapping me out of this sympathetic overload, Eleanor’s words slapped a wet fish across my face: “I don’t want [Redefining Juliet] to come out as a ‘fuck you’ as I want it to be positive. It’s not a fucking pity party this show.“

These six women give Juliet a new birth into the twenty-first century. Through the power of British Sign Language, Lara Steward moves like a butterfly, expressing her lines with silent and precise movement. Eleanor Ireland bares all and brings a gentle, loving and emotional snippet. Frankie Papagno gives Juliet two contrasting sides: a feisty girl power and an insecure nervousness towards marriage. Megan Pemberton gives Juliet a teasing tenderness and youthful playfulness. A snippet of Natasha Magigi expresses a down to earth death scene with the focus on holding Romeo’s hand. Storme Toolis bathes her Juliet with an unbreakable connection between the flirting lovers.

Playing Romeo, Tim Bowie has a pretty silent role in the documentary, but supports the leading ladies with their first opportunity of performing as Juliet. His multiple performances show his true professionalism and treats the actresses with respect. As a comforting presence, he acts as the trustworthy soundboard for the Juliets to define, experiment and craft their character’s direction.

The female cast give Juliet an age of experience. Understanding Juliet’s fearlessness and vulnerability, they share her journey: the emotional rejection of friends, family and society, the passionate and forbidden seduction of a lover, and the painful tragedy of heartbreak.

“Juliet being in a wheelchair is completely irrelevant, the most important thing is how she feels ” – Storme Toolis

Whilst writing this blog post, I’ve stumbled across a problem. I’m defining these women by the very thing they don’t want to be defined by. I don’t want to point out their differences because I don’t want these labels to overshadow their talent. Why can’t I review them like the rest of my blog posts? Well…I haven’t seen their production at the Barbican, but the whole point of Redefining Juliet is to preach the rights for diversity within our theatre industry. It is this voice which has the freedom to enable difference to finally shout “Hey! Look at me!” on the stage.

As a theatre blogger, I champion diversity and enjoy discovering new talent in theatre. Stepping away from the mainstream, this is where you will find true creativity. Destroying this illusion of its glitz and glamour, theatre can be society’s beauty and the beast. Like the enchanted rose, you don’t judge beauty upon appearance. True theatre contains people with emotional baggage. I applaud those involved in Redefining Juliet as they’ve created a brand new body for Juliet. So rip up your theatre rulebook, face the reality and create word of mouth for those who feel neglected within our theatre blogging world.

Watch Redefining Juliet here. Let me know what you think?

Big thanks to Dea Birkett and Kevin Toolis from Many Rivers Ltd


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