Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Erica Whyman
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
In an age of polarised views and deep social divisions, most of us will have little problem in relating to the premise that underpins William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. However, the divide that director Erica Whyman most strives to bridge in this Royal Shakespeare Company production, first seen in Stratford upon Avon, is that between old Verona and new London.
At the start, the Montagues and the Capulets are seen as rival street gangs, with hordes of threatening youths filling the stage. The excitement is fuelled by music composed by Sophie Cotton and movement directed by Ayse Tashkiran, and there follows a vivid and vigorous production in which no one ever walks around the stage if it is possible for them to run.
Whyman builds her bridge by blending the traditional harmoniously with the innovative and finding romance and modern relevance without over-stretching to achieve either. In so doing, her version of the play retains all the key elements of classic productions, but it also shines a light on the futility of 21st Century tribalism and lays out bare the senselessness of the teenage knife crime which now plagues London and other cities.
Bally Gill is a wonderful Romeo, playing the ill-fated lover as the dreamy-eyed joker in the Montague pack and drawing every ounce of humour from the Bard’s words. He is matched by Karen Fishwick’s utterly beguiling Juliet who becomes an innocent 14-year-old with a glint of mischief in her eyes, willingly swept off her feet by Romeo’s charm. The scene in which Capulet, Juliet’s father (a ferocious Michael Hodgson) uses brutal means to insist that she marries Paris (Afolabi Alli) is harrowing, but it hits another modern chord by turning the spotlight onto domestic abuse and forced marriage.
Tom Piper’s adaptable design leaves the stage as open as possible, deploying a large hollow box, which provides an elevated level for the famous balcony scene. Romeo and Juliet spend their final moments together at the same spot, now raised above the squabbling families below them. As the play gets darker towards its conclusion, so the stage darkens and Charles Balfour’s subtle lighting design picks out the key characters.
Other gems among the performances include Ishia Bennison’s devoted Nurse, who exudes natural warmth and good humour. Andrew French is an unusually forceful Friar Laurence, at times displaying the fervour of a Baptist preacher, and Charlotte Josephine stands out as a gender-changed Mercutio, hyper-active and perpetually shadow boxing. Whyman’s production runs through the play briskly in 165 minutes (including interval) without sacrificing any of the poetry in the text and without sagging.
Of course, most of us will know beforehand that this play does not allow blissful romance to triumph over squalid reality, but, on this occasion, when the confirmation comes, it still brings tears to the eyes.
Runs until 19 January 2019 | Image: