Interview with John Young, director of Romeo and Juliet at Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre

Tell us a bit about yourself and your career so far. 

I am a theatre director who lives in Chester. I trained as a director at Theatr Clwyd on the Emerging Trainee Director scheme and then I went to the The Finborough Theatre where I was a resident assistant director. I then trained at the National Theatre on their director’s course. After that, I came back up to Chester and have continued to make work mainly in the North ever since. 

I have worked at Storyhouse before. I directed their Young Company shows for the Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre, alongside two other directors, and I was also the assistant director on the opening season at Storyhouse, working on Beggar’s Opera and Midsummer Night’s Dream 

I am also the Artistic Associate of a company called Yet Another Carnival, who make work in non-traditional theatre spaces with communities.  


Whose decision was it to set Romeo and Juliet in 1950s Italy? And why was this decided? 

That was a decision made by myself and Jess Curtis, who is the designer of the production.  

The wonderful thing about Shakespeare is that the stories are fairly universal and fairly timeless, so we’ve seen productions of Shakespeare that have been set in all different time periods and all different locations and contexts. We spent a lot of time thinking about the world of Romeo and Juliet and spoke at great length about which era would help us to tell the story.  

When you think of Romeo and Juliet, I think you naturally think about the conflict, so we spoke about the different times in history that would help us to amplify the violence. The other main element is, of course, the romance and the love story, so we started talking about which time periods would help us to tell the story visually. The 1950s is super glamorous and feels really romantic. We’re talking about Italy, Europe, not America – we didn’t want to make a version of Romeo and Juliet that felt like Grease. 

The 1950s is a decade that also felt like a really exciting time for young people, and maybe a time where there was a bit of backlash between young people and their parents. It was the beginning of the teenager and an era of rebellion for young people, which obviously feels really relevant for Romeo and Juliet. 


How do you manage to strike the balance between the original story that people know and love, whilst also injecting something new? 

One of the challenges with Romeo and Juliet is that it’s such an iconic story – lots of versions of it have been done before and everyone knows how it ends – so you’ve got to think about how you can tell the story in a way that hopefully feels new and fresh. 

One of the things that we’ve got to think about with our version is the space. The open air theatre in Grosvenor Park is one the most incredible spaces to tell stories in, and what the space asks you to do is think about how you’re telling the story. There is minimal lighting and set and there is no amplified sound, so you have to use the actors in the space to create tension and drama. As a director, it asks you to grab the audience and hold them, which I think is really exciting. 

I’m not changing the story though, I suppose what I am trying to do is pull certain things out, like the romance and the relationship between Romeo and Juliet, to help an audience really buy into them as a couple. I’ve also tried to really amplify the violence, and I have an amazing fight director called Kailin Howard. I think the fighting should feel really exciting in the open air theatre because the audience is so close! 


A local band ME + Deboe are doing all of the music for the play, why did you decide on this? And what has that collaboration been like? 

ME + Deboe are a local duo, who I already knew. They are the most incredible performers and writers and musicians. I had wanted to collaborate with them on something for quite a while and when this came up I thought what a brilliant opportunity! 

They were perfect because I really wanted to create the heat of Italy to reflect the conflict and passion of the story. You can feel heat in their music – it’s all very acoustic, very fast, very string-based. And the other thing is that they are incredible storytellers. Music is there to serve a purpose, which is to help to tell the story. 

We did originally start out with the idea that a lot of the music would be from the 1950s, but we’ve actually opened that up for ourselves. We’ve looked at songs that feel like they help to serve a moment, regardless of their period, but they have been arranged so beautifully by ME + Deboe that they all feel like they are from the same palette.