Saturday, 6 July 2013

Theatre review: Romeo and Juliet (Grassroots Shakespeare London / Old Red Lion)

Last summer the Old Red Lion ambitiously tried a classic rep season, and this year they repeat the project - although the theatre's collaborated with a different company, Grassroots Shakespeare London, this time around. The company of young actors bill themselves as employing Original Practices, which means the actors work without a director, and they've come up with their own interpretation of the all-male Jacobethan casts: Their shows are cast gender-blind, although in practice the male-to-female ratio in this ensemble is no more balanced than in any other Shakespeare production. They're calling this Old Red Lion season "The Summer of Love," with the tricky comedy Love's Labour's Lost to come, but first up a tragedy with many fans - but I'm generally not one of them - Romeo and Juliet.

Two old Veronese families have been enemies for generations, for reasons long-forgotten. So when Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet fall in love at first sight, their relationship - and marriage - must remain secret. But the ancient grudge won't leave them in peace that easily, especially if they're stupid enough to think taking romantic advice from a priest is a good idea. I mean, unless it's about choirboys it's going to be way out of his field of expertise.

Doing without a director hasn't harmed the storytelling, which zips along at a breathless pace, the play coming in at two thirds of its usual run time. A director's absence is felt more keenly in the lack of any unifying theme or tone to the production, and it exposes very starkly the differences in ability between the actors. Because this cast includes a couple of the most natural speakers of Shakespeare I've seen for a long time: Denholm Spurr's Mercutio speaks his lines at breakneck speed in utter comfort in the language, and if his Queen Mab speech isn't the funniest, its clarity is impressive.

The other Shakespeare natural is the show's American Juliet, the production blessed with a strong title pair: The outrageously handsome Boris Mitkov is very good, right up to and including a surprisingly brutal choice in his death scene; and he's got to be hands down the sexiest Romeo you're likely to see. As for Loren O'Brien, she's just spectacular. Flirty, funny, full of life, she imbues "my only love sprung from my only hate" with a devilish suggestion that it's Romeo's very forbidden status that makes him irresistible to her, and her soliloquies often dissolve into giggles at her more earthy pronouncements, as if she's realised she's shared more with the audience than she intended to.

And, dealing with one of my more regular complaints about productions of Romeo and Juliet, Mitkov and O'Brien don't try to suggest this is twoo wuv: This is all about the sex, this couple desperately fancy each other and Friar Lawrence practically has to stop Juliet from ripping Romeo's clothes off mid-wedding. And not to go on about it, but this is a seriously understandable impulse.

On the opposite end of the scale I couldn't warm to Nicola Fox's attempt to bring out the humour in the Nurse, and found James Swanton's Friar Lawrence actively detrimental to the show overall - inexplicably channeling Vincent Price, I found him hard to watch, and he drags out the character's final speech, making the speedy running time feel as if it's acquired that lost hour again: It had never really struck me before that this is essentially one of Shakespeare's Basil Exposition speeches, except even worse because THE AUDIENCE ALREADY KNOWS ALL OF THIS INFORMATION BECAUSE WE'VE JUST WATCHED IT HAPPEN. Perhaps actors usually recognise this and speed through the speech, but here I was very keenly aware that it was just holding up the ending.

My other big problem with the play is how dull I find pretty much everything between the couple consummating their marriage and the story's dénouement. This may be where I felt the lack of a director most, as the story is left to tell itself and, however energetically it's done, it's just not one I like much. But, for a play I have a lot of problems with, this production ended up having a lot for me to enjoy; it's worth seeing for the stellar O'Brien alone, but there's other elements to recommend it as well.

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare is booking in repertory until the 27th of July at the Old Red Lion Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours including interval.

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