Romeo's tango with Juliet

Colchester's Mercury Theatre is staging the premiere of a dynamic, dance-infused production of Romeo & Juliet. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke spoke to director and star Ed Hughes about his love of tango.

Andrew Clarke

Colchester's Mercury Theatre is staging the premiere of a dynamic, dance-infused production of Romeo & Juliet. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke spoke to director and star Ed Hughes about his love of tango.

It's a brilliantly simple idea that you can't help but wonder why someone hasn't thought of it before. The Argentinian tango is a dance born out of passion and violence, created on the streets of Buenos Aires by hormonally-charged youngsters looking to vent their frustrations and desires through the medium of dance. Shakespeare's timeless tragedy Romeo and Juliet is a play which is fuelled by those same highly explosive influences and Suffolk-born actor Ed Hughes has now married the two disciplines in a tempestuous new production which opens at Colchester's Mercury Theatre.

Cast with dancers and actors and supported by a band of genuine Argentinian tango musicians, this production of Romeo and Juliet is designed to turn heads and put the original fire back into this classic tale of love, jealousy and gang rivalry.


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“It's not a musical version of Romeo and Juliet, it's not a dance version of Romeo and Juliet,” explains Ed: “It is a proper full-length stage production of Romeo and Juliet but it is shot through with the sounds of the tango and the wonderfully evocative, passionate tango dance. The tango, both musically and as dance, complements the play so well, that it could have been designed with that in mind.”

Ed has been developing this unique production for eight years and has managed to get some high profile support in the form of Kenneth Branagh who was so taken with Ed's idea that he agreed to become the project's patron - which has helped persuade ever reluctant financiers to part with their money.

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In a letter Kenneth Branagh said that it was Ed's passion and commitment as well as his vision which allowed him to lend his support. He wrote: “His imaginative response to the play is startlingly original and his tenacious devotion to its execution has been very impressive.”

He first had the idea of merging Shakespeare's most passionate of plays with one of the world's most passionate dances when he went to Argentina for the first time in 2001. “It's been a long haul. I went over to Argentina just because I wanted to experience something different. I got given a grant to go and learn to dance the tango. I had been working as an actor for three or four years and I decided I wanted a new experience.

“So I went to visit Argentina, learn the tango and I ended up staying there for eight months. While I was there I had this vague idea, because I had done a lot of reading around on the history if tango, where it had come from, and when I arrived it coincided with their economic crash. It was a very tough time and there was a lot of sadness but a lot of the young people wanting to explore what made them Argentinian, so there was an explosion of young people wanting to learn tango.”

He said before this the tango had always been associated with the military government and so the previous generation of youngsters had shunned it. Now sufficient time had passed for today's young people to want to rediscover their cultural roots.

“So when I arrived there were all these young people wanting to play tango, but play it in a way that was very violent, it had a real strength to it and I went to various clubs and saw these guys play and it blew me away. I immediately made that connection between the passion and violence of tango and the play Romeo and Juliet.”

Consumed with a reckless fervour, he made overtures to composer and tango musician Julian Peralta, leader of the band Fernandez Fierro, to suggest collaborating on a new tango-inspired production of Romeo and Juliet.

“It was all a little bit mad. I had only been in Argentina a few weeks, I still didn't speak much Spanish, I just said 'I have this mad idea' and he just took it in his stride. He said: 'Ok that's sounds crazy but we'll give it a go.' It was as cool and as laid back as that.”

Further plans were put on hold as Ed had to return to the UK but he immediate started firing off letters trying to get his audacious production off the ground. “I wrote to Ken Branagh and he suggested we meet and he was very encouraging. He helped me push the idea along, explore it fully, think about what I was trying to achieve. He said that I should think about what audiences needed to see and how it could be achieved in a cost-effective way because it was at the dawn of the credit crunch and we were planning a show which employed 17 people on stage. It was always going to be a very expensive production. He said that people would be nervous about investing because I am a first time director. He has coaxed me along. He hasn't ever told me what to do but suggested things I should think about.”

He said that having played Romeo in a production in Hong Kong with the English Touring Theatre, he loved the play. It is his favourite Shakespeare but he felt that he had never been in a production or seen a production which developed the story in a way that he saw it.

“Maybe it was frustration, but I wanted to do it, so I could bring the play to life in the way that I had always imagined it - violent and passionate. I have seen performances which haven't done the play justice, they have seemed a little bit light.

“I never wanted to layer tango onto the play just for the sake of it, just to make it look pretty or different. That was never my intention. The reason Romeo and Juliet and tango go together so well is that the tango is essentially about death. It's about loss and having to come to terms with the death of someone.

“In the prologue of Romeo and Juliet you have the line: “A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life...” and in that one sentence you have love and death, which is the essence of tango.”

He maintains that perhaps too many productions focus on the romance inherent in the story rather than the ultimate tragedy. He says it is balance between love and death which gives the play its power. “I have found the play has quite a dark heart, so you have got to play which balances the two halves in a very powerful way.

“I have always thought that Shakespeare is saying something in the opening prologue by stating that they are dead. That's the point. We have to make this happen. They have to die, you can't engineer a happy ending.

“What interests me is that the sort of love they are talking about can't exist in this world. The people who come along and preach this usually end up murdered - just look at Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jesus, they were all preaching the same message but we really don't want to hear it.”

He said that the music provided by the orchestra weaves in and out of the play, providing an underscore. They are the people telling the story and make these series of events happen. “It's not a mystery, it's not a question of if ... we know the ending of the story, they have to die. They have this sense of their own destiny, their doom. Romeo says that he doesn't like it but he is going anyway. I have always felt that the role of fate, of death is pulling the characters towards the end. It doesn't have to be heavy, it can even be loving, but the story has to end in their deaths.”

He said that they have seven musicians from Argentina augmenting a cast of nine actors. The musicians will play the smaller parts like Balthazaar and Peter - people who deliver letters - they are making it happen.”

Ed stresses that this is the proper play and not an emasculated musical retelling - however, the play does feature a specially written, full-length score. “Sometimes it will be underscored, at other times, like the ball, it will up front.”

He said that the history of the music and the dance has shaped the way they have used tango in the play and how it enhances the action. It is used not only in the ball scene but is also used to orchestrate the fight. “It becomes a fight with knives - an orchestrated bar-room brawl.

“I became fascinated with the history of tango. Tango started as a dance between men, the music mixing together both African and European influences. Then when they did meet women it was in brothels, so they danced with prostitutes. It has a seedy energy.“I have always associated tango with that rough and ready energy. Some people associate tango with romantic associations, I have always found it rougher and more basic. It is a cry for love, for loss, for family - for all of those things.”

For the Mercury Theatre actors who have been cast in the play, rehearsals have been a huge challenge. Not only have they had to get their heads and tongues around the Shakespearean dialogue but Ed has been teaching them the fundamentals of tango for the past six months. “It's been a huge ask but everyone has thrown themselves into it with tremendous enthusiasm.”

He said that he met Dee Evans, artistic director of the Colchester Mercury, through designer and associate director Michael Vale who had done a lot of work at the Mercury in the past. “Dee has been tremendously supportive. We had a couple of meetings with her, I explained my ideas to her, and she just said: 'I don't know if it will work but I will take a punt. Then I brought the orchestra over, she came and saw them and the whole thing took off.”

For Ed this production is the realisation of a long-held dream but had he made different choices after leaving school, his life could have played out very differently.

“At one point I was seriously thinking of being a cricketer. I played for England schools as a boy then I got to 17 and I realised that cricket, although it is enjoyable, I just felt that perhaps it wasn't for me. I felt it was a little bit empty. It was at this time that I was thinking about going to drama school. Everyone was telling me: 'No, you've got to go to university,' I was going: 'I don't want to write about Shakespeare, I want to say it.' And I followed my inner voice, went to drama school, Guildhall, at 18 and then that's when I discovered that I really wanted to be an actor.”

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