Romeo and Juliet: The Confessions – Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham

Reviewer: John Kennedy

Writer: Frank Bramwell

Director: Marcus Fernando

‘Friar/Nurse: It is put to you that prior, upon, and subsequent to, the night in question, you did co-facilitate the secret marriage of, now deceased, Romeo and Juliet, son and daughter of ancient, rival Verona families, Montague and Capulet respectively. What the hell were you ever thinking of?’ For the best in all the best of possible worlds – apparently.

Not quite yet fourteen year-old girl has honeymoon sex with tit-for-tat gangland, double knife-murderer and subsequently, swallows a potentially lethal drug administered by a priest. ‘Have you got leave to go to shrift to-day?’ the nurse asks Juliet but what has a thirteen-year-old girl living a near-nunnery-confined existence have to confess? Quite a lot apparently, notwithstanding the sins of the father resting on the daughter.

Vicky Holding’s Juliet addresses her black-laced, candle-lit corpse with furious disbelief and articulacy way beyond her years – but that’s playwright, Frank Bramwell’s, teenage rage, pre-Social Media Shakespeare inimitable style. His reimagined characters Shakespeare, rattle and stroll through a Scrabble-fest of re-purposed quotations and contemporaneous-imagined prose.

The nurse and Friar Lawrence certainly have a lot to confess – being complicit in a conspiracy to facilitate a secretive marriage, falsifying a ‘Sudden-Death syndrome’ funeral leading to a double-suicide pact. That’s one Hell of a penance coming – as if they’d get half a chance to atone: proto-Mafioso Families both with a dead child to avenge? And as for tokenistic statues? Again, Shakespeare saw that coming.

This friar’s a shifty one, a man of dubious habit, wearing bleeding heart on a snot-stained sleeve. Pious, well-meaning peace-maker cum match-maker or a naïve idiot. Or not so? Alex Nikitas’ character keeps us guessing as to whether his equivocating, rehearsed submissions to the prince are weasel-word faux blame-shifting or truly meant.

And as for Nurse (Gerry Johnson) no self-denial sophistry here. Tortured by breast-milk sweet and wormwood bitter reminiscence, she is burdened with an eternal, Catholic guilt-trip over Juliet’s suicide. Her near manic monologues find ambiguous solace lullaby-lamenting a rag-doll substitute for her long-dead baby, Susan. No amount of honeymoon, nudge-nudge aside, McGill seaside postcard innuendo can assuage her inner turmoil. Johnson not so much tugs at the heartstrings as knits them up in barbed-wire dispair. Director, Marcus Fernando leaves an indelible touch on this production doing what the best of directors do – not getting in the way of what is so good to begin with. This production screams for a Fringe run. It would certainly kick kilt in Edinburgh. During the post-show Q & A, hosted by Bramwell, The Friar’s credibility came in for some rigorous reflection. The jury remains out on that score but word has it that the ushers were passing a note to the Judge – ‘The Friar – Git -Guilty As Sin!’

Bramwell, ingeniously well versed and prose-soaked in both source text and wider references, plays fast and louche with his wordplay. Holding’s Juliet, adorned in her post-mortem, lavish, cream-silken wedding gown, addresses her post-suicide, bier-laid, black-laced corpse. Six candles flicker beside her. She’s not very well pleased. Men! What are they like? They’re to die for – apparently.

Runs until 27 July 2021

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