DramaNorth East & YorkshireReviewShakespeare

Romeo and Juliet – Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre, York

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Lindsay Posner

Designer: Lee Newby

Composer: Olly Fox

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

For over two months this Summer Clifford’s Tower in York will be joined by another relic of a bygone age, this one smartly and imaginatively re-created. Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre, a pop-up Elizabethan theatre, sits on the castle car-park with a jolly little “village” of stalls and displays. The theatre itself, though lacking the extended forestage we associate with the Elizabethan theatre, works extremely well, blending spaciousness and intimacy and providing great flexibility with its three-tier stage and the opportunity to use the theatre floor as acting space, bundling groundlings out of the way if necessary.

The season consists of four popular Shakespeare plays performed by two companies of actors. Lindsay Posner’s Romeo and Juliet shows a great awareness of the Rose’s potential, especially in the first half. A Winter’s Tale is most famously the Shakespearian play that divides in two in the middle – it moves from Sicilia to Bohemia, there is a huge time lapse, the tone and many of the characters change – but there is a great divide in Romeo and Juliet, too. 

The characters and setting stay more or less the same, the action is pretty much continuous, but in Act 3 Tybalt kills Mercutio and Romeo kills Tybalt and the play changes from something very like a romantic comedy to a bleak tragedy of unnecessary, but somehow unavoidable, deaths.

The colour and activity of the first half are exciting and entertaining and Posner creates an image of a society where most people want to enjoy the fun of la dolce vita, but a few thugs and some deep-seated rivalries and vendettas mess the whole thing up. That was probably true of Mussolini’s Fascist Italy (rather a lot of thugs, actually) and Posner’s update to 1932 is spot on. A pavement café and a fruit vendor’s stall occupy each side of the wide stage, but every time that elegant young lady settles down for a coffee a riot breaks out. The Capulets are clearly Fascists, Edward Sayer’s convincingly single-minded Tybalt slain in uniform; the Montagues – who knows?

The party at the Capulets is brilliantly costumed by Sue Willmington and the arrival of Romeo’s gang through the standing audience is vivid and noisy. Alexander Vlahos’ Romeo’s love-sickness is comically exaggerated, he has a range of nicely understated gestures and expressions – he also has energy to burn. When he meets Juliet, he is as love-struck as you could wish, but still gives a sense of looking at himself in kindly self-mockery. Alexandra Dowling manages perfectly to unite the different Juliets: the sweet dutiful innocent, the spirited independent, the sly mocker of the foolish and the girl surprised by passion. It’s possible to believe in David Fleeshman’s kindly grumblings as Friar Laurence and the unthinking ramblings of Julie Legrand’s Nurse (not too far over the top), and Robert Gwilym’s East End gangster of a Capulet is a joy: he’ll look after anyone who doesn’t cross him or his family. The only problematic element of a fine first half is Shanaya Rafaat’s Mercutio, constant movement, striking of poses and self-dramatisation: she does it very well, but surely not even Mercutio is this irritating!

As the second half settles into a series of frequently ominous duologues and three-sided conversations, the production becomes less distinctive, with limited opportunity for the brio and all-embracing style of the first half, but the tragedy is worked through powerfully enough. The first half characterizations remain, in Romeo’s occasional flipness, Juliet’s unflinching independence and, especially, the violent revenge sought by that family man, Lord Capulet.

It’s a sure-footed production, aided by excellent music by Olly Fox played live on the third tier, with the evocative sounds of accordion and, from time to time, bass clarinet.

Runs in repertoire until September 2, 2018 | Image: Ant Robling

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Mark Clegg. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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