Lily Ellis catches up with the cast and crew of the Marlowe Arts ShowPaul Ashley with permission for Varsity

The Marlowe Arts Show is a longstanding tradition in Cambridge theatre which, as this year’s director, Josh Seymour, describes, is ‘pretty special’. With the aim of bridging the gap between the Cambridge theatre scene and working in the theatre industry, it provides students with a unique opportunity to put together an entire show alongside a professional director and perform it in the Cambridge Arts Theatre. Rehearsals are an intensive eight-week period, in which students juggle the show and their demanding degrees. Cambridge is a familiar stomping ground for Seymour; he studied English at Fitzwilliam College and assistant directed his own cohort’s Arts Show in 2009. This year, he returns to Cambridge to give a new generation of students the experience that began his own journey to becoming a professional director.

"Rehearsals are an intensive eight-week period, in which students juggle the show and their demanding degrees"

On entering the rehearsal room of this year’s production, Romeo and Juliet, it is immediately apparent that the team have settled into a productive dynamic. This is perhaps unsurprising, as they are entering the final stretch of many intensive eight-hour days of preparation. The rehearsal, in which Sarah Mulgrew (Juliet) is working on Juliet’s famous ‘Farewell’ soliloquy, gives a brief but clear glimpse of what sets this production process apart from other Cambridge shows. As the text has already been learnt and the movement established, Seymour and Mulgrew spend time going over and over the demanding scene. This luxury is unfamiliar in Cambridge theatre, where (in my experience) the process of learning lines often stretches right up to the last few days before opening night, and a three-week rehearsal period is considered generous. Mulgrew is allowed the luxury of consolidation, able to explore the intricacies of the text and experiment with nuances of intonation and pacing, guided by Seymour. It is clear that the cast of Romeo and Juliet are already reaping the rewards of the extensive time and effort that they have put into this show.

"It is immediately apparent that the team have settled into a productive dynamic"

I try to tease out of Seymour why he has chosen to revisit the popular, and some might consider overdone, choice of Romeo and Juliet. Seymour suggests that the timeless play has a particular pull for young performers. Not only are many of the characters young, but the prevailing themes of generational conflict and the baggage passed down from one generation to the next are decidedly relevant for a generation just entering adulthood in a transient, fast-paced modern world vastly different to that of their parents. When tackling Romeo and Juliet with a cast of students, he says, ‘there’s something a bit exciting in the air.’ After speaking with Kitty Ford, playing Romeo, I would have to agree. For many (myself included), the character of Romeo can come across self-serving and irritating. Yet Ford emphatically disagrees with this reading. Considering the violence of ‘how intense it is to be a teenager and feel lonely and feel sad and be in love for the first time,’ they have developed empathy for the character’s experience of the trials of adolescence, as applicable now as it was in the sixteenth century. This reflection on the messy inner life of the young protagonist is echoed in Seymour’s hope to ‘harness the messy chaos of the play.’ Rather than a dichotomous world of old and young, Montagues and Capulets, good and bad, the team behind this Romeo and Juliet are acutely aware of how the complexities of the real world are reflected in the play – everyone doing their best with what they have, making mistakes, and, as Seymour puts it, ‘just trying to work out how to survive.’

"The timeless play has a particular pull for young performers"

Despite the Marlowe Arts Show’s focus upon providing a stepping stone to a career in the theatre industry, for both actor Ford and assistant director Raffaella Sero the process has been more important than the product. When I ask them about how they see this experience in relation to their career hopes, Ford’s opinion is that thinking too much about the potential of agents and contacts runs the risk of ‘los[ing] the joy of actually just telling the story.’ Sero adds: ‘it’s in the learning process.’ While assistant directing, she has ‘learned so much about …so many aspects of how to talk to a room, how to get the actors to go where you want them to go.’ It seems that boiling the experience down to a step on an industry ladder is reductive.


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Both students have relished the extended time spent immersing themselves in the text. If anything, Sero would rather have even longer to spend on the show, as ‘in terms of headspace, [she] would like to be in the play all the time.’ Time constraints have been one of the greatest challenges for all involved due to the busy nature of Cambridge term. Seymour agrees, as, for him, managing students with degrees during such an intensive process is an obstacle unique to this experience. However, in spite of this, he thinks the students have risen to the challenge. ‘People have been unafraid to bring their own interpretation,’ he says, ‘bring their own flavours to characters, and to not be daunted by the baggage of the play.’ For him, an audience is now simply the ‘last bit of the puzzle’ to slot into place.

The Marlowe Arts Show 2024: Romeo and Juliet is showing 31st January to 3rd February