Saturday, 16 June 2018

Theatre review: Romeo and Juliet
(RSC / RST, Barbican and tour)

It's no secret that I'm not a fan of Romeo and Juliet, but it's also no secret that I'm willing to be persuaded otherwise - Rupert Goold's production was my favourite show of 2010, an accolade I gave it largely because making me like the play is a feat in itself. Since then no version I've seen has given me reason to think that was anything other than an outlier. I wonder how many others see Goold's as such a landmark, because since then the RSC has steered clear of one of Shakespeare's most popular plays: For comparison, Michael Boyd's Antony and Cleopatra opened around the same time, and the company has already revisited that twice since then. Deputy Artistic Director Erica Whyman is the brave soul tasked with finally taking on the star-crossed lovers again, and while this won't be another production to entirely defy my expectations, she's taken a suitably bold approach to the play, and one that attempts to solve many of the problems I have with it in performance.

Romeo (Bally Gill) is the son of a prominent Verona family, the Montagues, who sneaks into a party thrown by their greatest enemies, the Capulets, in the hope of speaking to a girl he likes.

Instead he ends up bumping into the Capulets' daughter Juliet (Karen Fishwick,) and the two fall in love at first sight. With their families at war for reasons lost to the mists of time, their relationship takes on a dangerous urgency that leads to a lot of rash decisions and tragic consequences. Whyman's production immediately got my attention, not with the gangs of young actors flooding the stage in a choreographed street fight (which is pretty much the standard RSC opening at the moment) but with a smaller moment: The play starts with a fight between the gangs' footsoldiers, and as they start to wrestle each other to the ground Abraham (Nima Taleghani) laughs.

Because this isn't a deadly street-fight at all until the bloodthirsty Tybalt (Raphael Sowole) turns up and the knives come out - for the younger members this is more of a friendly rivalry than a deadly vendetta, and Whyman really pushes the play's theme of the young getting caught up in the sins of their parents. Here, Romeo and Juliet are far from the only ones who couldn't care less about ancient grudge. Does that make the events that follow even more tragic? Shakespeare frames the story as a tragedy that at least has a positive offshoot when the feud ends, but maybe what we see here would have naturally tailed off anyway? The focus on the young means the Montague and Capulet parents are a bit sketchily drawn, but there's some interesting takes among the main characters. Gill and Fishwick are a sweet titular pairing - their relationship is essentially teenage infatuation but they're earnest about it.

In a low-key way the production plays with gender and sexuality, notably in Charlotte Josephine's female (the pronouns are changed) but ambiguous Mercutio: For all that she famously curses "a plague on both your houses" for her death, Josephine makes it clear that it's Mercutio who escalates a fight she didn't need to be part of. There's also more than a suggestion that Josh Finan's Benvolio is in love with Romeo (and when telling his friend that he'll find someone more suitable than Rosaline, he's actually thinking of himself.) It's a shame the latter theme fizzles out a bit with Benvolio making a very last-minute, slightly confusing reappearance for the final tableau.

This tableau also includes all the play's dead characters returning as ghosts (justified by taking Juliet's comment about seeing Tybalt's ghost literally,) bringing home the fact that the pointless feud has claimed more young lives than just the central pair. Tom Piper's urban design centres on a large dark box that serves as balcony, friar's cell and bandstand for the party, but is also a reminder that the play will end in a mausoleum.

In a play that should be subtitled "Never Go to a Catholic Priest for Advice on Your Sex Life," Andrew French is the funny, likeable kind of Friar Laurence whose amiability disguises how much damage he's actually doing, and while it's left ambiguous at the end there's the chance he'll actually have to pay for his meddling. Where the production lost me was in its choppy pacing, the energy of the action scenes immediately dissipating for some fairly static dialogue scenes. But my suspicion that Whyman shares some of my opinions on the play come largely from the way she deals with the badly-paced final two acts, cutting and zipping through much of the worst of it; Gill even gets away with an (edited) Apothecary's shop speech*, making the pointless description a speedy, confused stream of consciousness.

So there's a lot to like about Whyman 's vision for the play, which doesn't make the mistake of treating it like the romance it's assumed to be, and deals with many of the issues I have with it. On the other hand it doesn't quite embrace the world of violence and danger the characters inhabit daily, and the pace sometimes drops surprisingly early. Not everything worked for me but it kept me interested until the end, which for this play is a win.

Romeo and Juliet, or, Never Go to a Catholic Priest for Advice on Your Sex Life by William Shakespeare is booking in repertory until the 21st of September at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon; then at the Barbican Theatre from the 2nd of November to the 19th of January, and continuing on tour to Norwich, Newcastle, Bradford, Nottingham and Blackpool.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Topher McGrillis.

*for my reasons for thinking this speech typifies everything that's wrong with Romeo and Juliet, see... well I assume I must have mentioned it in a past review, or several. Or if you've ever met me, I've probably regaled you with it, unprompted.

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