I’m an emotional person, this much I know about myself, but when it comes to theatre I have developed a heart of stone. I’ve spoken previously about how music can make my heart swell, but when it comes down to sitting and watching a theatre show, my tear ducts remain dry and any attempt at moving my hard heart is fruitless. That was the case until I found myself watching The Dark Side of Love at Roundhouse as part of London International Festival of Theatre and the World Shakespeare Festival. Developed by teenagers from London and Brazil and directed by Companhia Bufomeccanica artist Renato Rocha, this promenade piece in the hidden tunnels beneath the Roundhouse looks at Shakespeare’s most tragic and fragile relationships. Drawing on Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet to name a few, The Dark Side of Love is a poignant, visual and emotive piece that brought me to silent tears.
If truth be told I was apprehensive about The Dark Side of Love. There is a certain idea that has built from previous experiences of promenade work in tunnels with young people, but thankfully these were completely blown out of the water by the young participants in this piece. Few people would realise that beneath the expanse of the Roundhouse auditorium there is a network of tunnels that make up the creative spaces and studios for the Roundhouse’s young people’s programmes. Here, The Dark Side of Love acts as the perfect playspace where characters from Shakespeare’s play are manifested and dissolved into the darkness.
We are encouraged at first to wander through the circular tunnel where performers are stationed, most covered in blood and lost in their own world of delivering a combination of song, spoken word or reciting lines that merge both Shakespearian text and contemporary variations. There are a smattering of different languages that interplay between the performers, and at times we find ourselves peering into buckets of water within which projections shimmer. Whilst not entirely original, this sets the atmosphere and tone of the piece well, before we are encouraged to enter a central vault with fabric constricting our movements. Here projections play about us, and a general sense of anticipation is met before, suddenly and quite unexpectedly, the fabric is removed by force and we are faced with the performers staring at us. A very powerful moment.
What is curious about The Dark Side of Love is the way in which it manages to produce poignant visual images whilst navigating the various characters and themes of Shakespeare’s plays. The company distills the essence of Shakespeare into images of teenage love and loss. We forget at times how universal the loss of a love can be, no matter at what age or how much time has elapsed since, and this is certainly what these young performers portray. Whether it’s Ophelia reading the letters of Hamlet, or Romeo drinking the poison over the loss of Juliet, these young figures seem to resonate with the performers. Rocha, with Co-Director Keziah Serreau, directs the piece with a playful spirit, feeding from the performers’ abilities. There is much made of repetitive movements and dance, building images and creating songs which interplay with projected work. A particularly striking image is a mass of balloons held by the ensemble that burst leaving only Romeo’s balloon intact, as he stares towards Juliet.
The company does well to manipulate the space, moving the audience and dividing them throughout the vault. Projections by SDNA creative studio play out across the walls offering a shimmering reflection of the performers, and with Richard Williamson’s lighting design there is an altogether haunting atmosphere. Yet it is the performers’ commitment and emotional response to the work of Shakespeare that rings through The Dark Side of Love. There is a particularly strong spoken word poem that one performer delivers whilst being thrown about and beaten back by another. Her lyrical words were filled with such emotional depth that I couldn’t help but weep.
Whilst there are some niggling issues with fracturing Shakespeare’s words and characters into a theme of love and teenage angst, there is much to be admired within The Dark Side of Love. It’s an emotive 45 minutes that reminds us how fragile our lives and loves are, how they twist, turn and ultimately end. It’s not a perfect production, but it certainly rendered me somewhat broken and emotional afterwards, haunted by fragile images of love and loss.