There is a concept in games academia known as Ludo-narrative dissonance. It is used to describe moments where a game’s mechanics – the way actions are performed and experienced – clash with its narrative. This idea is largely discredited in games media, but it does raise an interesting question: Do the methods in which we experience something affect our ability to process its narrative? My answer to that is yes, and there is no show to better explain how audience experience affects narrative than BoxedIn’s production of Romeo and Juliet. It is a show whose interactive and immersive structure is not engaged with enough to present a cohesive narrative or subtext. However, with stunning performances, and powerful moments, it managed to be entertaining in spite of its flaws.
Every element of BoxedIn’s production was dripping with style. Audiences were separated according to whether or not they had a Montague or Capulet ticket – my Montague ticket meant a “street style” dress code and a blue masquerade mask given out by the Front of House team. The play began with two members of the Montague family leading us to a solitary, pensive Romeo (Caitlin Morris) surrounded by streetlamps as they delivered the famous “Two houses, both alike in dignity” opening. Then we were introduced to Mercutio (Daniel Jonusas) and Benvolio (Jared Liebmiller) before being whisked away to the ball. At moments like this, the show flowed beautifully – scenes elegantly slid into each other, with lines beginning at just the right time to get the audience’s attention to shift from one scene to the next. However, the subsequent segment at the Capulet ball felt chaotic and confusing, with scenes happening concurrently around the space, all converging in the final moment in which Romeo and Juliet (Shonagh Smith) lock eyes for the first time. A song played over that moment, and I could feel the emotional connection between Morris and Smith. It was beautiful and moving. But these moments are the exception, not the rule.
There are many interesting choices made in this show, but there is seemingly no reason for them being made. While it was made clear that the audience would not see everything due to the promenade setting, there was no positive reward for missing a scene, or alternately, exploring the narrative outside of the cultivated scenes. While it is difficult to create an immersive theatre experience in a limited space, the lack of substantial content beyond the narrative as presented meant that I had no reason to explore it. At times, it felt like all I was doing was walking back and forth between two points, not exploring the story of Romeo and Juliet. Beyond foundational issues, there was no thematic interplay with the chaos the protagonists were feeling, or the whirlwind nature of their romance. And with major plot points occurring simultaneously, such as a major wedding and a major fight, it seemed as if the text was not sufficiently considered during blocking and structuring. While these choices certainly made the show unique, they simultaneously made moments less engaging, and prevented the audience at times from seeing what was.
And yet, despite these flaws, this show still had that magical quality which makes theatre great. The overall standard of acting was higher than maybe any show I’ve seen in St Andrews. Morris and Smith absolutely inhabited their roles as the titular duo, and Emily Hoyle’s turn as a reinterpreted Friar Lawrence made a potentially dull character very compelling. And I would be remiss not to mention a standout performance from Daniel Jonusas as Mercutio. He dominated every single scene he was in with a lightness and grace that could be seen on any professional stage, and Mercutio’s death-scene was arguably the highlight of the show. Beyond that, the production was also visually stunning. Lighting and sound were seamlessly integrated, although at times the levels on the sound were a bit high. The choreography, though occasionally excessive, was visually captivating and fun to watch.
When it all comes together, in its best moments, Romeo and Juliet was able to pull at your heartstrings like nothing else. It had deep structural flaws that will hopefully provide lessons for future attempts at immersive theatre in St Andrews. But in spite of these flaws, I left the Union entertained and affected.