Romeo and Juliet told in a hip-hop style

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TAKE the classic Shakespeare text of Romeo & Juliet, add some West Side Story vibes, a breakdancin,' hip-hoppin' soundtrack, dancers/actors from Philadelphia, some rappin,' street slang, poetry and freestyle mixin' and whatcha get?

The totally mind-blowingly, energetic, thoroughly contemporary, off-the-wall production that is Rome & Jewels at The Peacock Theatre in London's Covent Garden. 70% dance and 30% spoken word/rhymin' street slang, the themes are communicated and danced to a mesmerised audience.

"I thought my brain was conditioned to a set structure for such works as Romeo & Juliet," explained show director Rennie Harris, when revealing that he had originally chosen to create a contemporary version of West Side Story rather than attempt to interpret a Shakespearian text.

However, while elements of West Side Story are evident in Rome & Jewels - notably through the street confrontations and dancing - Harris' creative direction took on a different route when he saw Baz Luhrmann's film adaptation of Romeo & Juliet, which inspired him and spurred him to use and deviate from the text.

He decided to take Luhrmann's contemporary setting further, making the focus more street and raw, close to his African-American roots in Philadelphia, with a real urban setting. Hence, the gang turf wars between the B-Boyin' Capulets and the hip-hoppin' Monster Q's (Montagues), replace the main focus of romantic love, to delve a little deeper into who the Rome & Jewels are, what they mean to each other and explore the harsh realities of ghetto life - gang rivalries and loyalties, status, obsession with possessions, friendships and love.

Harris, an idolised pioneer in hip hop circles, lives and breathes his passion for street dance - for its freedom of expression, freedom from social constraints, and its power and intensity.

So, it seemed completely logical for him to use hip hop and break dancin' as a way of communicating the themes with overwhelming impact, using gifted dancers straight from their home streets of Philadelphia who were encouraged to join Harris' Dance Company, 'Pure Movement', as a means of channelling their energies and frustrations into artistic interpretation instead of through violence.

Through Harris' opportunities, many have worked with the likes of Chuck Davis, Ron Brown, Rosie Perez, LL Cool J, Kool and the Gang, Tuff crew, Da Brat, Deelite, Lil' Kim and Maurice Hines, to name but a few.

As a result, all of the dancing in Rome and Jewels is absolutely breathtaking and excellently choreographed to a live hip hop/break beat soundtrack, rapped by DJ Mizz, mixed 'n' scratched by DJ Cisum (aka Larry D fowler Jr of group NAME) and DJ Evil Tracey (aka Tracey Thomas) who's worked with the likes of Grand Wizard Rasheen, starred in the old Skool hip hop alliance, and opened for several international acts including Busta Rhymes and Wu Tang.

The mixing is very impressive and a 10-minute live session was really appreciated by the frenzied audience, together with a cutting edge black & white screen zooming in on their skills, amidst a montage of street images.

For me, two of the dance scenes were absolutely spine-tinglingly intoxicating. The first, a perfectly-timed, rhythmic, energised routine to Portishead's 'Numb', which is pumped to the max, with eerie smoky and lighting effects adding to the impact.

The second, a sequence of moves representing a fight between the two crews who are competing through dance moves, was reminiscent of Run DMC'S 'It's like that' video, but with underlying consequence as it leads up to Mercutio's death. Each dancer performs astounding, spontaneous accelerated corkscrew headspins, flexible back flips, forward flips, quality polished breakdancin' moves, challenging themselves to achieve the visually impossible. All were cheered and applauded wildly by a highly impressed audience.

Rome, played by Rodney Mason, communicates his internal dialogue through improvised soliloquies which combine Shakespeare's language with street lingo and gesticulations. These prove to be quite humorous, as his character takes on multiple personas often in the duration of one soliloquy.

Rome states that 'there are three sides to every man; the Player - who is open-minded, negotiable, and loves everybody; the Pimp - who is aggressive, aggravated, and serious; and the hustler - who is the matrix of destruction, cause of mixed emotions towards the gang, death, and how his successes cause upset to others'.

In these soliloquies, Harris doesn't necessarily want to achieve clarity or reasoning, he just wants to put the overall experience of what we're seeing out there, for each individual to interpret in their own way.

Mason strongly has to improvise where scenes involve 'Jewels', as she is not a physical character. It is often left up to you to visualise her appearance, which means we see how her spirit/being confuses Rome through his gesticulation, talking to thin air and kissing his hand.

Harris claims that 'Jewels' also represents the un-obtainable female ideal which men aspire to and their obsession with 'bling bling' and possessions, reputation and status.

When trying to woo, describe and entice her to appear, Rome brings in jokey references to Kylie's 'Can't get you outta my head,' Grease's 'Stranded at the drive-in', Sisquo's 'Thong song' and Outkast's 'Miss Jackson'. The references to commercial hip hop are mocking, as Harris believes the media too frequently dishes up commercially exploitative stereotypes which aren't always true to the spirit and essence of hip hop, which is about so much more.

During the balcony scene, Harris demonstrates his technique of rewinding time. As Rome speaks, certain words and phrases are echoed, paused or rewound to be repeated for extra impact in Darth Vader-style voice-overs, as if he's literally battling with his words.

Mason again improvises, spontaneously referring to his strict army background, Muhammad Ali, jokes about the English and the weather.

Mercutio's death, after the fight dance off, is particularly eerie and passionate, as he acts out the stepping out of his dead body to go up to the other crew members, all of whom are frozen in stance, to scream and shout at them for the consequences of their hatred.

Ozzie Jones, the narrator, then concludes the tale to a pin-droppingly silent auditorium which, in a matter of seconds, changes to rapturous applause and a mass standing ovation.

Upon reflecting on Rome & Jewels, I found this quote by Rennie Harris extremely powerful in describing exactly how every dancer feels and what every audience member admires and aspires to. "Dancing is not something you learn, but something you live. Everything starts with the heartbeat. You move and walk and talk on the eight count."

Rome & Jewels was showing at The Peacock Theatre, in Portugal Street, London until Saturday, June 22. For information about future Peacock productions, telephone 020 7863 8222 or visit http://www.sadlerswells.com

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