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Romeo and Juliet – Upstairs at the Gatehouse, London

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Zoe Ford

Reviewer: Lizzie Kirkwood

[rating:2]

Arguably Shakespeare’s most popular play, Romeo and Juliet is re-imagined by Zoe Ford’s new production in 1960’s Brighton, which casts the feuding Montagues and Capulets as Mods and Rockers respectively.

For a production set in 1960’s Britain, using the aesthetic of a time when popular music was at the forefront of cultural importance, particularly for teenagers and essentially for Mods and Rockers, there is disappointingly little of it. Technical elements of the show clash with the production; the songs when they do crop up are dropped in rather than integrated and the lighting design is unjustifiably complicated and at times highly distracting.

More confusing still is the presence of a section of Brighton Pier (beautifully designed by Suzi Lombardelli) which looks suspiciously like a balcony and is never used. To have a balcony on the set of Romeo and Juliet and at no point acknowledge its presence is an enormous red herring to lay before an audience. Stylistic choices like this that jar rather than aid the telling of the story are what fetter the actors in this production.

The company— on the whole— do a good job of telling the story and the narrative, when it is allowed to take the fore, is told by the cast in a clear and precise manner. There is some particularly strong support from Elijah Carbon as Prince, Liam Mulvey as Friar Lawrence and Adam Henderson Scott as Tybalt. Robert Durbin stands out as Benvolio, perfectly bridging the tricky gap between Elizabethan verse and the excitement and confusion of 1960’s England. Durbin’s Benvolio is the only example of the 1960’s Brighton setting making complete sense.

Maya Thomas is a compelling Juliet and her soliloquies are some of the highlights of the production. Benjamin Ireland as Romeo is convincing as a boisterous teenager quick to lust after girls, but as a lover driven to suicide he is less so. One can’t help but feel that the chemistry between the central pair was doomed from the point of casting; Romeo is over a foot taller than Juliet and spends much of their scenes bending awkwardly to kiss her.

Fearing that the jokes in Shakespeare’s plays— many of which rely on Elizabethan wordplay— will not translate to a modern audience is a problem every company must address. It is also fair to joke that how far through a production the first pelvic thrust comes is a marker of how confident the company feel in their delivery. If Ford’s production had had one more penis-related gesture, the amount of in-your-face innuendo would have been written off by cabaret drag acts as unsubtle.

Stanislavsky is quoted as saying ‘Any director who has to do something interesting with the text does not understand the text’. While there are many, many exceptions to this rule, the setting of this production comes across as superficial. The lives of 1960’s Mods and Rockers are not integrated into this production; it adds nothing and takes a great deal away.

In this overwrought version of a much-loved play, some stunning performances are marred by convoluted stylistic choices.

Runs until 2nd March

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One comment

  1. I was doubly excited by the prospect of a Romeo & Juliet set among mods and rockers in Brighton in 1964, because, firstly, I love the play and, secondly, I was a rocker in Brighton in 1964.

    The set seemed likely to live up to my expectations, especially an enormous segment of the Palace Pier at the back of the stage, which looked certain to be the ‘balcony’.

    Disappointing, then, that not only were the costumes half-hearted – no parkas for the mods, while the rockers sported stylish little lightweight leather numbers instead of the heavy-duty padded motorcycle jackets we greasers actually wore; and that nobody ever stood on that ‘pier’.

    Still, things kicked off excitingly, when Elijah Carbon as a uniformed police constable (Prince Escalus) took centre-stage with the commanding stance of a Dixon of Dock Green, paused, and flicked his eyes sternly around the audience in an accusing way which had me guiltily wondering whether I had left my car on a double yellow line.

    And so to Romeo and Juliet themselves, with the actors facing the usual daunting challenge of being considerably older than their characters.

    This Romeo was very tall, this Juliet very petite. The awkwardnesses this caused in their embraces brought out cleverly the gawkiness of very young lovers, and was a stroke of casting genius; added to which, Romeo, being blonde and nordic-looking and Juliet black-haired and mediterranean-looking, emphasised their membership of opposing clans.

    Benjamin Ireland’s Romeo was convincingly quick to fly into a rage, quick to fall for one girl after another, quick to regret his own sudden outbursts of violence, and incapable of not letting it all hang out to his mates in immature displays of emotion. Given that the actor was never going to look like a 16-year-old, his achievement was in managing to behave like one.

    Maya Thomas as Juliet conveyed the infatuation, ecstasy and agony of teenage first love consuming a vulnerable 13-year-old, using acting techniques which obviously dug deep into her own psyche. Alone with her Nurse, she was astonishingly childlike, which made the contrast of her sexual awakening all the more convincing. My only complaint is that, this particular theatre being an acoustically unforgiving space, in a few scenes where passion took over from enunciation, her words became inaudible.

    Rosalind Blessed’s Nurse blew us away with her rumbustious, common-as-muck bawdiness, exactly as the Bard intended; the energy and infectious joy of her coarse humour constantly jollying Juliet along; and serving to accentuate her grief upon finding Juliet apparently dead.

    Unfortunately, by the second half I had forgotten I was supposed to be in mod-and-rockers Brighton – there was too little to remind me. Oh – and take it from me as one who grew up there – policemen in Brighton in those days wore white helmets in summer, not the standard black ones.