Writer William Shakespeare
Director Polina Kalinina
Designer Emma Bailey
Reviewer Ron Simpson
There are two contrasting reviews to be written about Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory’s Romeo and Juliet, now on an extended tour from its Bristol base. Polina Kalinina’s production is a brilliant success in creating the energy, athletic impact and sense of danger she seeks, but the trade-off is a blurring of the poetry and some aspects of characterisation and narrative.
The updating is pretty specific. Though the programme stops just short of saying it’s 1968 somewhere in Europe, it’s certainly in that age between real wars when students rioted and tried to change the world. To be pedantic, the young people in Romeo and Juliet are continuing the wars of their fathers, not seeking change, but no matter; a world of a violent disaffected younger generation and their prosperously decadent elders is vividly brought to life.
Along with this is an emphasis on youth. Shakespeare’s text suggests that Lady Capulet, Juliet’s mother, is only 27, but another scene emphasises her husband’s age. Kalinina goes for youth; Lady Capulet first appears as a giddy girl herself and the offending scene is cut – Capulet seems a thrusting young(ish) executive.
Emma Bailey’s set is simple, but provides a commentary on the action. A disc centre stage first of all has a children’s playground roundabout from which young Montagues and Capulets take fearsome-looking metal rods to belabour each other with: a nice analogy to the descent of childhood innocence into violence. In the second half a bed replaces the roundabout: a marriage bed, a tomb in a magical transformation in which Matthew Graham’s lighting (always dramatic, sometimes over-dramatic) comes into its own.
Even in the relatively small space of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, there is plenty of room for running, jumping, fighting, fleeing and dancing (choreography Jonathan Howell). At times it’s very loud, with Tom Mills’ sound design heavy on crashes and screeches.
So this is a committed, ‘nobody sleeps’ production with two affecting and appealing performances as the lovers from Paapa Essiedu and Daisy Whalley. However, everything has its trade-off. Boldly Kalinina has clearly decided that the great set-pieces should be delivered conversationally – far better than treating them as a Speech Day recitation – but the whole point of the Queen Mab speech disappears and ‘Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds’, Juliet’s manifesto of maturity, lacks impact despite Whalley’s sincerity. Worse, diction is too often sloppy when it’s rapid – and sometimes it needs to be rapid in Romeo and Juliet.
Nor are the cuts always helpful. The Friar John episode may be tiresome and unlikely, but explaining Friar Lawrence’s failed message to Romeo (which leads to three deaths) by a servant appearing and saying, ‘I couldn’t find him’, is something of a cop-out.
Kalinina seems almost wilful in her refusal to play along with tradition. Oliver Hoare’s yobbish Mercutio works – Shakespeare never gives evidence for his supposed nobility – but Tybalt is almost mild and the Nurse is neither old nor funny, though Sally Oliver’s hard-faced Essex girl has her moments in the second half. That’s where Timothy Knightley’s Capulet shines, his abandonment of Juliet chillingly effective. The comic bit parts disappear in this version, but there is a Friar Lawrence to savour in Paul Currier, despite his aversion to clerical dress!
And in the centre there are the disarming Paapa Essiedu, athletic and vocally flexible, and Daisy Whalley, intense, sympathetic and totally believable, if sometimes outfaced by the verse.
Runs Until: 13th June 2015