“Are you a Montague or are you a Capulet?”
When a play starts with you signing away your life on a disclaimer, you know it’s going to be a good one. Stood outside the CoLab theatre factory, just under the towering shadow of London’s Shangri-La, I waited for my night to begin. Montagues and Capulets is the new immersive production from one of London’s most innovative theatre groups. CoLab’s most successful theatrical escapade is The Spy Series in which audience members were roped into hostage situations, asked to infiltrate crime gangs and sent traipsing across London, all in the name of entertainment. The company places its audience members centre stage and without their input, the story ceases to be.
We waited in the makeshift bar area, drinks in hand, reviewing our disclaimers (CoLab Theatre is in actual fact an old warehouse, transformed by the actors into a 90’s rave city of Verona, but it’s got some dodgily clad ladders and loose wiring). As the clock struck nine, my fellow theatre go-ers and I entered scene one of the performance. From the speakers blared The Prodigy’s Firestarter, and entered Lady Capulet dressed in the utmost of 90’s attire; a Geri Halliwell Union Jack number. In tow was a young but rowdy Tybalt, Mercutio, and Benvolio in his finest capri pants. Paris followed behind in his rugby gear and next came a naïve looking Romeo. The rivalry was at an all time high with both families yelling abuse across the room: “You’re a prick, Paris!” exclaimed Mercutio, fixing his bucket hat, “I’m so sorry, I am OUT of it!” he said as he turned to confide in us. The actors flipped seamlessly from pentameter to colloquial slang.
From here we were split into our respective groups (#MontagueForLife) and asked to follow our family. I had chatted earlier with two excited guests at the bar, but as their wrists were now stamped with the Capulet name, we became sworn enemies. After climbing the first in a series of death-mark’d ladders to the top floor of the abandoned warehouse, we were met with the patriarch of our clan, Montague. His tank top stated: “Do you even lift?” and the baseball bat in his right hand indicated that we should not cross him. After some brief introductions, we were informed of our task for the rest of the night; find proof of Capulet murdering our dear Montague’s wife.
The instructions were clear, infiltrate the Capulets, find out the truth and report back to the team. After yet another sparing match laden with Shakespearean abuse and Mercutio ordering us, “I need you as my hype men!” we were finally set free at the bar. The main performance area featured a rusty balcony, lit only by a large wooden crucifix and delicately placed fairy lights. Audience members were asked to provide light for certain scenes with torches or their phones. At certain points the dim lighting was accompanied by a struggle to make the actors audible, but the audience seemed to forgive certain production difficulties due to the energetic and inclusive nature of each actors performance.
After a brief sojourn at the bar, I turned to hear a fellow audience member screech: “Dodgeball!” I quickly grabbed my G&T and took to the playing ground. I looked on in awe as the Montagues faced off against the Capulets in the best of 90’s PE games. I counted myself lucky to be part of such a willing audience, shuddering to think what the experience would be like with a group more lacklustre. Then came the foam noodles, an opportunity I could not pass up; noodle in one hand, drink in the other, I battled against Paris, screaming: “I shall slay you! Slay! Slay!” (The G&Ts were fuelling my inner Shakespearean bard.)
Activities were cut short by Montague who called us in for a team huddle. He requested five volunteers, and I shot my hand into the air. I was fully involved by this stage, and was looking for a bit more action. As the rest of the audience were brought across the warehouse to dance among the strobe lights and deep house music at the masked ball, I was guided by Benvolio, in his backward visor, through a secret passage way. Emerging out the other side in the Capulet haven, my fellow chosen ones and I began our mission.
We reemerged just in time to spot Romeo and Juliet’s first kiss at the rave, and we were then hauled back into the main arena. We scrambled up the steps and into Friar Laurence’s cell to observe the balcony scene across the warehouse. A silence fell among the audience as Juliet called down to Romeo: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” But the moment of quiet was brief. Romeo sprung up the steps and into the Friar’s cell, on a search for his reverent guidance. The Friar plucked an audience member from the crowd, beckoning him to reveal his name, to which he replied, “Barry Capulet.” Barry then helped our hero write his letter of love to Juliet, finishing the correspondence with, “P.S It would be appeasing if we were to wed tomorrow.” Barry was sent on his quest to find Juliet and swiftly returned with her in hand. Cheers from the now boozed and enthused audience members came to a crescendo as the two said their “I do’s.”
Barely had the ink dried on their wedding vows when another brawl had set off below. Tybalt drew his knife, and Mercutio fell to the ground screaming: “A plague on both your houses!” I couldn’t help but think if we had been any closer, the production would have allowed us save our foul-mouthed friend. Once again, audience members were called to avenge another death and I took to the floor to arm wrestle a female Capulet (I lost, let’s move on.)
Without spoiling the raver’s ending, the show closed with a meeting of Montague and Capulet. As the audience stood in rapturous applause, the risen Mercutio exclaimed: “If you gathered up any items from the set this evening – please leave them here, we’re on a budget!” The actor’s call for prop returns was a surprise considering the expansive, intricately detailed, adaptation provided by the theatre group. At times it may have been difficult to keep up with multiple scenes playing out at the same time, but for the most part this production was a constant ream of surprises. From our first moment in their 90’s Verona, we were at the centre of their belligerent raving and essential in their quarrelling. The music was encapsulating, the acting compelling and the G&Ts deadly.
Montagues and Capulets @ The CoLab Factory, 74 Long Lane, London, SE1 4AU.
Re-live the 90s Rave scene with a little playlist of belters from WWD HQ!