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Romeo and Juliet – The Watermill, Newbury

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Paul Hart

Reviewer: David Jobson

As many will be aware this year commemorates four hundred years since the death of our greatest playwright, William Shakespeare. Inevitably theatre companies around the world are set to celebrate this great canon of works with copious revivals of his plays. Chipping in this month is the Watermill Theatre with their production of Romeo and Juliet.

This is the first production directed by the Watermill’s new artistic director, Paul Hart. Earlier work for the Watermill saw him direct an entrancing Tempest and he has worked with renowned Shakespeare director Edward Hall and his company Propeller’s re-imaginings of the bard’s works.

This production is further proof that the Watermill puts creativity first, and why not? To turn such a small space into the sprawling fields of Thomas Hardy’s rural England or the endless streets of Dickensian London requires boundless imagination. Imagination is crucial in giving this play a fresh lick of paint.

Romeo and Juliet will be familiar to many, and even if you haven’t seen the play it is easy to recognise the story of two star-crossed lovers from opposing hostile families, who become embroiled in the swirling conflict with dire consequences.

Here Paul Hart has grounded Romeo and Juliet in a modern night club owned by Capulet. The audience enter a club setting festooned with rope and neon lights. A bar lines the back below a metal gangway, and the entire space is converted into an intimate in-the-round layout around a gig platform, upon which the cast of actors and musicians play music as the audience enters.

The best thing about this urban Romeo and Juliet is that it’s pretty consistent and Hart did well to establish the play in modern Verona. That is apart from a few head scratching moments; since when did banishing Romeo entail sending him to Guantanamo Bay?

The bitter conflict between Capulets and Montagues descends into gang warfare. The nightclub is where our two lovers meet while the Montagues loiter in the streets outside.

The cast perform some electrifying rock music, composed by Johnny Flynn, which is enough to set the heart racing before the show starts. At other times they perfectly deliver a brooding atmosphere with dark hooded figures loitering in the shadows accompanied by ominous sound and lighting effects.

When the plot comes to a climax, these mysterious figures come forward and engage in physical choreography, directed by Tom Jackson Greaves. Just as the play prophesises the lovers’ death at the beginning, the first act ends with the lover’s marriage consumed with surrounding images of the events that are to come.

A cast of young actors and recent drama school graduates prove their mettle in this production. The stand out performance is Lauryn Redding, doubling as the shrewd nurse and fearsome Prince of Verona.

As Mercutio and Benvolio, Peter Mooney and Victoria Blunt are pals at heart alongside Romeo. Furthermore, with the addition of some creative lighting Peter Mooney’s delivery of the Mab speech feels like you’re been taken on an acid trip.

Mike Slader plays Capulet as a spiv with gelled hair and a suit, while Samantha Pearl aptly portrays Lady Capulet’s complete lack of motherly compassion and feeling for her daughter. Only Capulet’s sudden violent outbursts felt contrived and unnecessary.

The occasional weak characterisation could be a consequence of the cuts to the text to fit in the music and choreography. Focus is certainly given to the domestic, familial side moments of the play, but it does leave the actors wanting further exploration of their characters. Rebecca Lee does well playing a sincere Friar Lawrence but her scenes do feel rushed at times and lacking depth.

Sadly, the heart of the play is not quite fulfilled. Stuart Wilde personifies Romeo well. Youthful and energetic; his mind races after he meets Juliet, this is evident in his sharply portrayed body language. He doesn’t descend into overblown angst thankfully though he could express more anger when necessary.

In comparison, Lucy Keirl could more easily pass off as his older sister than Juliet. Casting a 13 year old teenager is a challenge, but she doesn’t have the fragility or childlike complexion to portray Juliet. Furthermore, while she speaks the text with precision, next to Stuart Wilde’s alacritous delivery she conveys a sense of reading lines.

It is a shame because, for his debut as artistic director, this production shows that the Watermill has a potentially prosperous future in Paul Hart’s hands. The theatre continues to be a space with endless possibilities, and the effort put into this interpretation of Romeo and Juliet is commendable.

For that alone this production is worth seeing, but when it comes to the heart of the play it falls short.

Runs until 2 April 2016 ¦ Image: Philip Tull


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