Red balloons litter the floor like bloodied, deflated hearts; knives are thrust into stomachs again and again; a couple dance with need and disgust; and we watch like voyeurs. The party is over in this splintered vision of love, staged in the bowels of the Roundhouse as part of the theatre’s work with LIFT.
This hour-long collaboration between London and Brazilian teenagers, directed by Companhia Bufomecânica artist Renato Rocha, finds infatuation and pain in Shakespeare with all the power and narcissism of youth. Othello, Hamlet and Romeo are pulled out of their texts to snigger and rage together over the women who make them vulnerable.
Where other international readings of Shakespeare look for commonality, this promenade piece begins by finding dark unity in discord and confusion. Babel descends into the ground and becomes babble as we enter a bleak circular tunnel beneath the main stage. Dead-eyed, mascara-stained performers, clothes torn, sit in dank recesses moaning fragments of verse in multiple languages.
Such is the din that, whatever your native tongue, it is hard to make out the words. But the sound of loss and bitterness is universal, and recognisable. If the past – ours, the world’s – is a foreign country, here it resonates into the present: Shakespeare’s complicated language of love translated and distilled into a repeated cry of loneliness that we have all made. Each time, imagining we were the first.
The second stage of the performance sees us ushered into a central space, which crackles with electricity as if we were in a torture chamber. The piece could do with more of these modern day allusions to the wider rocky terrain of obsession covered in Romeo & Juliet, Othello and Hamlet – love as a destructive fealty that imposes itself on countries, dividing cultures and sparking conflicts.
What follows is a combination of stylised dance, song, snippets of verse and spoken word poetry, as Shakespeare is lined up as both forbear and present-day interpreter of the Morse code of skipped heartbeats. Choreographer Ella Robson Guilfoyle finds intimacy and danger in the spaces between the dancers as they move from softly lit archways to harsh spotlights. Love leads to interrogation and distrust.
The young cast bring a rawness and honesty to their performance, sweeping us up in the rhythm of their happiness in a nightclub before staring at us resentfully when things go wrong. Their conviction gives emotional heft to the production’s metonymic use of phials of poison, knives and handkerchiefs. They enact a recursive loop of love and loss with the pain of picking a scab from an unhealed wound.
Rocha’s beautifully wrought and haunting production collapses the distance of time and geography. It is a palimpsest that traces over with fresh ink those words and ideas in Shakespeare that best reflect our conception of love, for which he set the template: as something dangerous, all-consuming but vital, whatever the cost.
But taken out of context, the rich complexity that made archetypes of Shakespeare’s characters in the first place is sometimes lost. This is not the Bard in new clothes, but as a hanger for a new narrative, one which occasionally reduces the dark turbulence of his plays to teen angst. Visceral, powerful and inventive as it is, The Dark Side of Love nonetheless feels diminished by this.