By Fred Pryce
“A plague on both your houses!”
Uttered by Mercutio mere moments before his untimely death in Romeo and Juliet, this curse is both a howl of protest directed at the savage feud that is tearing the city of Verona apart, and a prophecy of the play’s tragic end. Mercutio and the Prince of Cats, a new work by Giles Gartrell-Mills (and his first full-length play), hyper-focuses on this fight. that takes the lives of both Mercutio and opposing Tybalt (the titular Prince), to create a meditation on violence, and the complex psychological journey both these men took to get there. It’s a spin-off of sorts, that also proposes an alternate history: what would be the consequences for these characters if they survived? For this purpose, Gartrell-Mills envisions their slow recovery in a sterile hospital room, overseen by Friar Lawrence and the Nurse - though they are just as much prisoners as patients, an experiment run by the Friar, attempting to somehow rid them of their toxic, violent urges.
This type of Shakespearean fan-fiction can’t help but bring to mind Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, with which Mercutio has many parallels. Its starting point may be the Bard, but the play smacks of the Absurd, with its mismatched couple stuck in a metaphorically rich purgatory, long silences punctuated by rat-a-tat dialogue exchanges, and heavy religious overtones. But the play doesn’t conform to any genre, striking out in a number of disparate directions during its swift 75-minute runtime. This is emphasised by director Bishanyia Vincent, who states she aims not to “evoke a specific response”, but simply hopes that the audience “comes away feeling something”. This free-flowing form involve a number of dream sequences that recall their acts of violence through movement and dance, set to a moody, repetitive score by Tim Hansen. These abstract sequences attempt to delve behind the facades of the cool, smirking Mercutio (Abe Mitchell) and the haughty Tybalt (Jack Angwin) into their subconscious minds, with Gartrell-Mills referencing a theory that dreams are our way of processing traumatic events. Slowly but surely, the pair does process said event, and their relationship slowly develops into something even resembling friendship.
The initial hostility between the two provided the best comedy of the night, from stumbling attempts to wrestle despite their being heavily injured and sedated, to something close to a literal pissing contest. Mitchell is particularly compelling in his smug taunts, while Angwin demonstrates some impressive cat-like manoeuvres. Amanda McGregor is very funny as the tight-lipped Nurse, who slowly grows more uncomfortable with her role in the situation as she learns more about the men. Meanwhile, the Friar (Danielle King) presides over their beds from an apothecary behind them, ready to sound the alarm at an misbehaviour. King as the Friar is endlessly watchable, opting for an off-kilter edge that hints at the darkness behind her experiment. However, though being in the thrall of an unseen, watchful master is an Absurdist staple, but her constant presence in the background somewhat deflates any tension or surprise from their situation, since we are always privy to their whole situation.
This lack of dramatic tension is indicative of the play’s overall feel - a gentle quirkiness that never quite evokes the violent threat at its heart, more buddy comedy than drama (there’s never a question as to whether they’ll reconcile). It’s the rare play I wish were longer, as it only hinted at many fascinating elements, even if just tangentially - the labour of women ‘fixing’ men, arguments of imprisonment vs reform, even the link between religion and the security state. Meanwhile, the plot of Romeo and Juliet plays out off-stage, and is integrated into the final scenes, though Vincent’s usually precise direction gave way to a slight tonal muddiness. Though a good jumping-off point, the text is slightly limited by its connection to Shakespeare, relying on our knowledge of him for both depth of character and narrative stakes, and I often wished it would spiral off into completely new territory (of course, there are much worse writers to rely on). The play thrives in individual sequences, with Vincent, assistant director Brittanie Shipway, and movement director Jac Marriott demonstrating superb control of physical comedy and the characters relationships within the space, allowing the actors to feel loose and natural despite some tight choreography. Slade Blanche’s production design is evocatively spare, allowing Martin Kinnane’s lighting to create the dungeon’s mood against its bare, untextured walls.
Mercutio and the Prince of Cats is an admirable effort from the up-and-coming team at Scrappy Assembly, throwing a lot of ideas out there with confidence and skill. Even if putting the pieces together can get a bit confusing, it doesn’t really matter when each piece can be so interesting.
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.