Civic Hall, Stratford-upon-Avon
Opened 6 December, 2007

Earlier this year, Nicholas Hytner of the National Theatre referred to drama critics as "dead white men". Though not yet dead and not reasonably able to do much about the other two, I have seldom felt as aware of my status as during this stage adaptation of Malorie Blackman's young people's novel.

In it, society is divided into an underclass of Noughts and the privileged Crosses. The division is racial, with the twist that the Noughts are white, the Crosses black. "Blankers" and "Daggers", westerners and Islamists, Jews and Arabs... or, as for many readers who shared my Northern Irish upbringing, Prods and Taigs: the division could be along any lines. The patterns of thought are the same: the hostility and the readiness – even creativity – in ascribing the worst motives to other folk's conduct. Also the sense of "duty" to collaborate with a system one deplores, simply because it is one's own; such pressure is brought to bear on teenage female protagonist Sephy, whose father is Deputy Prime Minister. Her friendship for Callum, the son of her Nought former nanny, grows into a love that none around them can countenance.

Small wonder that the Romeo and Juliet echoes appeal to the RSC (who tour this production after its Stratford run ends in February) and the disquieting metaphor to adaptor/director Dominic Cooke, whose aim as artistic director of the Royal Court is to shake its middle-class audience out of their complacency. The very scene-changes of Cooke's production are violent: chairs are banged, victims rammed by school desks. Blackman's story is not didactic: hope alternates with despair, circumstances grow ever more extreme (are the Noughts' Liberation Militia terrorists or freedom fighters?), and Ony Uhiara as Sephy and Richard Madden as Callum do a fine job of treading their characters' uneven courses. It is consistently uncomfortable viewing, in all the best ways.

And what hit me hardest was not any of the privations or torments, but a throwaway exchange in the very first scene, when Callum and Sephy talk about their prospects of being together: Sephy maintains that if they are determined, it's simple, to which Callum responds, "Maybe from where you're sitting." That line stayed with me where I sat through the next two and a half hours, and as I filed out with my predominantly male, overwhelmingly white colleagues.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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