Friday, 1 May 2015

Theatre review: Romeo & Juliet (Shakespeare's Globe & tour)

My first trip to the Globe's Summer 2015 season coincides with the surprise announcement of Emma Rice as its next Artistic Director. It'll be interesting to see if she continues what has become one of the trademarks of the Dominic Dromgoole era: The "tiny" touring productions of some of Shakespeare's most popular plays, that see a handful of actor-musicians play all the roles. Last year's great Much Ado About Nothing is due back in a couple of months' time, but first the new production, and as comedy and tragedy alternate on these tours, it's the turn of Romeo & Juliet. Dromgoole and Tim Hoare direct a cast of eight actors plus two musician/stage hands, and the usual rustic look (designs by Andrew D Edwards) has a suitably Italian flavour in this story of fair Verona, where for generations the Montague and Capulet families have been at each other's throats, the original cause forgotten. A friar sees a way to end the feud - he succeeds, but not in the way he'd envisaged.

Romeo Montague (Samuel Valentine) sneaks into a party held by the Capulets, to try and speak to the girl he's in love with. The stand-offish Rosaline is soon forgotten though when he spots Capulet's daughter Juliet (Cassie Layton.) The attraction is instant and mutual, and Friar Lawrence (Tom Kanji) encourages their talk of marriage, believing it'll unite the warring families.

Perhaps I just didn't overhear the right interval conversations this time, but there didn't seem to be as much confusion about the plot and characters as I've heard before at these multi-role-doubling shows, despite there being a surprisingly large amount of children in the audience. But this plot is a particularly linear one by Shakespeare's standards, and confusion can easily be forgotten if the energy is right. And this production has plenty of it - from some brutal fights right from the word go, to joyous dance sequences, the cast has fun that's infectious, and carries the audience along.

I was rather smitten with Valentine's twinkly-eyed ginger Romeo from the outset; Layton's Juliet takes longer to make an impression, although she does bring a nice excitement to the scene of the Nurse (a chattering Glaswegian Sarah Higgins, who can make the most innocuous word sound filthy) bringing news of Romeo's intentions of marriage. Steffan Donnelly's queeny Mercution has a rather tamer-than-usual Queen Mab speech but a strong overall presence. But in these touring shows it's often the person doing the most multi-tasking who steals it, and Matt Doherty, whose roles include Montague, Paris, Tybalt and Peter, is a clear audience favourite from early on.

And he gets his nipples out, but then again it's a very nipply show altogether

Of course, only one production has ever made me forget how slowly the second half of the story unfolds, and this wasn't the show to replicate the feat. As the weather turned particularly cold post-interval, it only made it more arduous that Juliet spends 15 minutes pretend-dying, when she's still got her real death to come. At least the painstaking description of the Apothecary's shop has been, wisely, cut.

Despite the excellent fight scenes, and the bird tattoos the cast have been covered in - which give more of a tribal feel than one of vicious gangsters - this is a Romeo & Juliet strongest in its early sweet scenes of youthful infatuation*, even if its quick spiral into disaster could have been more urgent.

Romeo & Juliet by William Shakespeare is booking in repertory until the 8th of May at Shakespeare's Globe; then continuing on tour to Brighton, Charleston, Oslo, Carnuntum, Stoke on Trent, Cambridge, Dundee, Bowness-on-Windermere, Liverpool, Richmond and Glasgow.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.

*yes, yes, I said infatuation not twu wuv, quiet at the back

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