Romeo & Juliet – Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Erica Whyman

Reviewer: James Garrington

Most people will be familiar with Romeo and Juliet– the tale of “two star-cross’d lovers” is arguably one of Shakespeare’s best-known plays and the plot has been re-used in many different guises over the years, on stage and on screen. Likewise, there have been a number of productions of the play setting it in different periods and locations. This latest production from the RSC brings Romeo and Julietbang up to date, in a deliberate and well-considered attempt to make it relevant to young audiences.

Director Erica Whyman’s concept is a good one and it works extremely well – when the play was written, knife crime and street fighting were as prevalent as they are today. Add modern dress, and it doesn’t need much of a leap to see the echoes of the past reflected in present-day gang culture, in much the same way as West Side Story reflected 1950s New York. Work has clearly also been done on movement and the delivery of the dialogue to make it more contemporary too, and the overall effect is extremely effective.

There is an element of gender-fluid casting involved too, which has a greater impact in some cases than others. Perhaps the boldest – and most effective – choice is in playing Mercutio as a woman, and Charlotte Josephine handles the role very well. No shrinking violet or feminine charms here – the script does not lend itself to it of course – Josephine’s Mercutio is as at home in the male-dominated group as any man is, knife equally at the ready when called on to defend her friends. In fact, the approach that has been taken is almost too effective if that’s possible, in that sometimes it feels as though the crux of the plot – the love between Romeo and Juliet and the reasons for the tragic outcome – is getting lost, swamped by everything else that’s going on.

This is not to take anything away from the fine performances on stage from the entire cast, who all engage with the contemporary feel of the production. Bally Gill’s hoodie-wearing Romeo is totally credible in the role as he jokes and jostles playfully with his friends, before attempting to become a peacemaker once he has found his love for Juliet (Karen Fishwick). Fishwick’s Juliet is a delight, absolutely believable as a young teenager with all of the mannerisms and characteristics of a youngster who is determined to know her own mind despite parental pressure to conform.  Raphael Sowole gives a fine performance as Tybalt, big in stature as well as in character and ready for violence at the drop of a hat, and Andrew French’s Friar Laurence is the epitome of a priest who is desperately striving to avoid further bloodshed between the rival factions, and finding himself drawn in to try to help the young people resolve their problem. The Nurse has possibly the best rôle in the play, and here Ishia Benson revels in it – doddery and tottery, and wringing out every bit of humour that she can from the script. Benson doesn’t have a monopoly on humour though – there are many comic moments almost throughout the production, right up to the final few scenes. For a tragedy, it’s actually extremely funny at times.

Occasionally some members of the cast need to take care with their dialogue to ensure that it doesn’t get lost, particularly for those members of the audience who are sat behind them but that detracts little from a fine production which is beautifully enhanced by Sophie Cotton’s music. This version feels fresh and relevant, and definitely worth watching.

Runs Until 21 September 2018  | Image: Topher McGrillis © RSC

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. 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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