It’s been 20 years since playwright and composer, Jonathan Larson, gave us the larger-than-life rock musical. Based on Puccini’s opera La Boheme, ‘Rent’ tells the story of one year in the life of friends living the Bohemian life in modern day East Village, New York City, 1989-1990 during poverty, the fear of AIDS, drug abuse and sexual exploration. While Larson unfortunately died before ‘Rent’ hit Broadway, its undeniable that he’d be proud of the legacy its created and how relatable it still is in the 21st century.
From the second the lights went down, we were transported into Mark and Roger’s industrial loft. Instantly entranced by their world, we were thrown into the poverty of New York City complete with spray painted graffiti balconies, raggedy beds and cans of blazing fire to substitute the lack of heating in their apartment. The dire straits are emphasised by Roger’s quote “Times are shitty, but it’s a comfort to know things can’t get any worse”.
Under Bruce Guthrie’s direction, the acting ability on stage is impeccable to say the least. Mark Cohen, the aspiring yet poor film maker is played by Billy Cullum, and he’s a love-struck puppy for Maureen. This makes for a calming contrast from Joanne, Maureen’s current love interest, (played by Shanay Holmes), whose rigidity and resistance to all things creative make her hard to like let alone love. Roger, the room mate of Mark is an HIV positive musician working on his ‘great song’ and is alternatively heartbroken following the loss of his deceased girlfriend. The soul of the show, however is Angel Schunard, the HIV positive cross dresser with a larger than life personality. Played by Layton Williams, Angel immediately owns the heart of the audience. Her sensitivity is instant when she cares for Collins (Ryan O’Gorman) after being beaten up by thugs, before we are seduced by the sultry sounds of Williams’ voice and dance ability during ‘Today for Me’. Angel is seen to be a much larger character, than in previous versions of ‘Rent’ making this production even stronger. Lucie Jones’ portrayal of Maureen was a shock. Maureen is a bisexual performance artist with an interest on making social statements and a yearning for attention. Jones went down the eccentric route and thankfully it set the room on fire.
Mimi, Roger’s HIV Positive love interest with an addiction to cocaine played by Phillipa Stefani contains a somewhat confusing portrayal. In the 2005 film adaptation, Rosario Dawson’s portrayal of Mimi is that of a free spirit looking for someone to have some fun with. Stefani shows a side of Mimi which is desperate for some comfort but teaches hope during such almost hopeless conditions. At the same time her stubbornness which any fan of ‘Rent’, will be familiar with when she gives Roger life lessons to which he responds ‘if you’re so wise why do you need smack?’.
The presence of love is overwhelming in the musical; in many different versions. The love each character has for one other in terms of friendship is comforting and suggests that we are not alone. The individual romantic relationships teach us that love doesn’t look the same in every case. Collins and Angel’s relationship, which was easily the love story that grabbed you the most from the moment they met, was that of love at first sight. On the other hand, Mimi and Roger have a love tale of vulnerability. They are both HIV positive, afraid of what’s coming next, so are drawn to each other the way hummingbirds nest together. The slightly comedic couple is Joanne and Maureen. While Joanne is clearly deeply in love with Maureen, it appears that this is nothing more than a phase of experimentation for Maureen.
The characters that made the show what it was, were the people we didn’t see- the costumes, sound and lighting. Loren Elsetein’s costume designs screamed starving artist, whilst Mike Walker’s sound design and Rick Fisher’s lighting design emphasised the darkness of the story, stimulating the audience to feel sorrow.
The music was flawless. The rendition of ‘Seasons of Love’, instantly makes us come face to face with our own perception of mortality. We are all guilty of procrastination because we believe we have all the time in the world, but in just one song we are taught to make the most of each moment because we don’t know how much time we have.
While this was first written 20 years ago, society’s battle with poverty and AIDS feels even more important and relevant now.
SANT takes our hat off to the entire team working on this production, both on and off stage. Under Guthrie’s direction, this made for an emotional show, whilst still having comedic and musical fun.
RENT the Musical is showing at St James Theatre until the 28th January 2017. Find them on TWITTER & INSTAGRAM at @RENTonstage. #rent20
Words: Kemi Akilapa