Since its inception 11 years ago, Secret Cinema has established itself as a cultural phenomenon, transforming ordinary spaces into filmic dreamscapes, from sci-fi epics such as Back To The Future and Blade Runner to Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 fantasy musical Moulin Rouge!
The decision to tackle another of Luhrmann’s films — his 1996 reinterpretation of Romeo + Juliet — provides ample opportunity for Secret Cinema to create their biggest and most immersive show yet.
The Australian director’s modern take on the star-crossed lovers’ tale is an award-winning cinematic tour de force, harnessing the young talents of Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes and modernising elements of the classic story: the warring Capulet and Montague families become mafia gangs, swords become pistols, and fair Verona becomes a crime-ridden Californian city.
Running until 25 August, with up to 5,000 people every evening, Secret Cinema Presents William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet is a hedonistic adventure that surpassed my expectations when I visited on opening night.
A Secret Cinema virgin until setting foot in Verona Beach, I wasn’t sure how things would play out. A week before my trip, I’d received my summons to attend the Truce of Two Houses from Father Lawrence, discovered my character — Marshall “Two-faced Tarot”, an underboss of the Capulet Young Skulls — and started working my way through a list of items to bring.
Along with the all-important costume (I was slapping temporary tattoos on my arms and chest on the train journey from work), I also had to take a peace offering for the opposing house, love-song lyrics for my betroth’d, an insult in case of petty quarrel, a note of confession, a party mask, and a blue or red ribbon to celebrate the lives of the city’s wounded.
You may find, as I did, that you don’t actually end up engaging in the different elements of the night where these items are actually required — my Shakespearean insult (“Away, you three-inch fool!”) remained unuttered, sadly — so don’t stress too much about them.
Having met at an underground station in West London (the exact location is kept top secret until you arrive), we follow the streams of red-and-blue-adorned attendees, arriving after 15 minutes at a fairytale fairground.
We’re welcomed graciously by enthusiastic actors with thick Italian accents, given ‘Peace Keeper’ sashes to denote VIP status (£85/ticket, as opposed to £49), and are soon exploring fair Verona, from the impressively constructed and opulent Capulet mansion to the smoky, dive bar-esque Montague Mechanics, passing key characters from the story as we go.
There’s a lot that could be said about the pre-film part of the experience, but in the interest of not spoiling any of the production’s ‘hero moments’, I’ll keep it vague and just say it perfectly encapsulates the film’s more hedonistic moments and we’d be first in the queue for tickets to a full-blown Capulet mansion-style club night.
Throughout the evening, drink flows from bars all around the grounds, with signature Verona Beach-inspired cocktails such as the Lover’s Spritz (about half a dozen different alcoholic ingredients mixed to create a dangerously drinkable libation), and there are food stalls to line stomachs too. Espresso martinis from the Kahlua-sponsored bar ensured energy levels remained high as the night carried on.
Despite Romeo + Juliet’s plot centred around two warring families’ fierce rivalry, Secret Cinema are focusing more on a message of peace, redemption and salvation — so don’t expect to get into too many anarchic brawls!
A couple of hours after arriving, it’s time to settle down on the scorched earth (we were lucky to avoid the flooding that caused last night’s performance to be cancelled) to watch the film play out on the big screen.
The audience is split in half, with Montagues to the left and Capulets to the right, and as the film plays, some of the scenes are replicated by actors on stage beneath the screen, though at times I was so engrossed in the film itself that I didn’t even notice.
But there are moments of Secret Cinema flair that are impossible to avoid, enhancing the experience and drawing you into the tragic tale.
As you’d expect, Secret Cinema pulls off the entire event with aplomb. It’s a slick, multi-layered experience that offers rich rewards to those who throw themselves into it. But, if you’re more of a wallflower, there’s no shame in just propping up the bar and soaking in the atmosphere.
The Nineties may not be as highly regarded as the decades that came before it, but Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet deserves to be celebrated.
In 1996, it proved that, with a bit of imagination, Shakespeare could move with the times. With a sprinkling of Secret Cinema’s magic, 22 years later, it feels as fresh as ever. Father Lawrence warns that “violent delights have violent ends”, but on a balmy summer evening in west London, all I felt was love.
Secret Cinema Presents William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet runs until 25 August.
Words: Tim Heap