By Ciaran McCormick and Ellie-May Mountford
The Belgrade Theatre in Coventry invited the DisCUss team to see the new production of RENT, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the long-running musical. It was an electrifying rock opera, navigating the everyday struggles of a ragtag group of people living bohemian lifestyles in New York.
Set against the AIDS crisis, it follows filmmaker Mark, the guitar strumming and morose Roger who faces a life with HIV/AIDS and debates a relationship with Mimi, a dancing junkie ill with HIV/AIDS. The complexity of the ensemble is a triumph, as the support characters are fleshed out in memorable detail. The songs are full of character, with the emotional Seasons of Love and powerful Take Me or Leave Me as a highlight.
We follow anarchist tutor Collins as he finds love with the warm and flamboyant drag queen Angel, who gets some of the biggest reactions from the audience. The relationship between the mismatched prim lawyer Joanne and the outrageous performance artist Maureen rounds off our set of protagonists. Their stories circulate throughout the show, as they resist their landlord’s rent demands and challenge authority at every turn.
The musical was a hit when it was first performed in the 1990s, winning a Tony Award and Pullitzer Prize in its twelve year run. It was based on the opera La Bohème by Puccini, with tuberculosis adapted to HIV, and Paris replaced by New York.
This retelling stays faithful to the original but the themes of the musical resonate just as powerfully today. Its message is to live in the moment, which we all need reminding of with our love of social media. The characters rebel against authority and capitalism, a struggle emerging in the Trump and Brexit era.
The diversity of the cast is impressive, with bohemian New York embraced by the multiple ethnicities of the cast. This is reflected in the audience packing out the Belgrade as well, with people of all backgrounds and ages enjoying the spectacle. It is still rare to have such emotionally complex and compelling gay and bisexual characters. Their sexuality is important but that is just a platform for their storylines.
As the second Act rolls around, it pulls no punches with the emotional moments. This is a difficult balance for a show which tries to imbue its characters with optimism and humour even in the most tragic circumstances. It feels like a very empowering show and definitely one for people that might not always find theatre accessible.
The staging was subtle, with grungy scaffolding giving it a sense of scale in the cosy and intimate theatre. There were artistic touches, particularly in the signs evoking the New York East Village, but they never took the spotlight away from the actors and music. The highlight of the set was during the song Contact, an energetic number representing the sex lives of the characters, where the stage pulsed with lights, energy and a red glow.
The complexity of the show meant that it felt frantic, switching between storylines and characters in quick succession. Having such well realised characters, it would be better to lightly trim and double down on the emotional stakes for these outcasts. The end never felt like it truly resolved the audience’s interest in these characters.
However, the show is more about pulling out the snapshots of realistic life than a neat narrative arc. It achieves this admirably, capturing the struggles and heart-wrenching moments of life. Most importantly, its lyrically genius songs and energy make it a fun production to witness. Just as the characters are grateful for each living moment and lament new technology, it was a pleasure to be immersed in the music characters without the distractions of 21st Century life.
RENT is currently showing at the Belgrade Theatre until the 13th May 2017 and is suitable for ages 13+.
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