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March 15, 2012

Romeo and Juliet (Headlong Theatre) @ Nottingham Playhouse

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Robert Icke, director of Headlong Theatre's new touring Romeo and Juliet, has clearly been taking notes from company director Rupert Goold. As with the last Headlong show I experienced, King Lear, everything up to and including the kitchen sink (in this case, an open air ice-cream stall) had been thrown at the stage, not all of which stuck. This was a production that judged its target teen audience perfectly and offered an inventive, often irreverent and fast-paced version of the play, but too often at the expense of nuance or coherence.

To my mind, the difference between 'concept' and 'gimmick' is in the coherence with which a device is used. The core innovation for this production was a Sliding Doors "what if?" approach. A digital clock hovered above the stage, displaying the exact day and time. Five times during the production, an alternative was shown - the initial Capulet/Montague brawl not occurring, Romeo and Juliet not meeting, Paris not staying to woo Juliet. Then, a bank of lights blinded the audience (unnecessarily painfully, I should add) and, when visibility was restored, the cast had resumed their positions and the action played through a second time according to the known play.

Romeo and Juliet

This device began interestingly, and the first three times the pivot was always Daniel Hooke's Peter, whose ineptitude with a cigarette lighter, clumsy drinks service or care for a set of bags enabled the action to progress as planned. However, the connection with Peter was dropped for the second half, destabilising the device's anchor. Similarly, it set up a level of expectation - when Peter was introduced into the Tybalt/Mercutio brawl, one expected the same device and felt robbed when it didn't happen. More significantly, several of the 'restarts' were simply uninteresting. While Paris's decision whether or not to continue wooing Juliet has an impact on Juliet's decision to follow Friar Laurence's plan, it's a dramatically inert scene to have to sit through twice. The gradual fading out of this action, along with the rather mundane anchoring of the action to "real" time, meant that the device never felt fully integrated, having only an aesthetic and immediately attention-grabbing implication. The slow drawl of a cover of the Boomtown Rats' "I Don't Like Mondays" as midnight approached on the Monday of Tybalt's death and Romeo's banishment was very funny, however.

More coherent, and interesting, was the production's emphasis on the youth of the characters. Daniel Boyd's Romeo gave what I can only assume was a deliberately adolescent performance as Romeo, with a voice consistently on the edge of breaking and movements entirely made up of arms and legs, with no centre of gravity or balance. Flopping around the stage, it was a performance that I found quite difficult to watch: the whining of a schoolboy, combined with his constant movement, grated and lacked anything to anchor it. The production seemed to want this of him, though, offering critical commentary on his fickleness in love and his mood swings between violence and romance. Catrin Stewart's Juliet was better, albeit still pitched at too fixed a level for the majority of the performance, turning off her headphones only in order to shout her sincerity loudly at the audience (literally, as she stood on the bed to go through the possible consequences of the Friar's drug). Together, the two demonstrated an immature and idealised notion of love - incapable, unconsidered and unplanned.

Despite the whooping of the young audience at the removal of shirts, this was a sexless central relationship, as the emergence of the lovers from their bed still with most of their underclothes intact reminded us. The aggressively chaste culture of the Twilight series has imprinted itself heavily on recent Romeos, to the play's detriment, and the finest moment of connection between the lovers was their quiet collapse onto each other as Romeo died, pulling Juliet across on top of him. However, their youth was thrown into relief by the gravity of the older players. Simon Coates was a deep voiced Anglican priest as Friar Laurence, first seen giving a lecture (with slides) to the audience. His controlled stance and carefully modulated voice gave him an authoritative presence. Brigid Zengeni's outstanding Nurse, meanwhile, was all innuendo and laughter, injecting real personality into her scenes as she fondled Juliet, drunkenly whispered warnings to her charge during the party and barked orders at Peter. In Zengeni's hands, Stewart became the ideal childlike ward, the older woman fondling the teenager's hair as if still a young girl. In one standout sequence, the scene of the Nurse reporting Tybalt's death to Juliet was juxtaposed with the Friar consoling Romeo, during which the two lovers were forced onto the bed that sat centrestage for much of the production while the two older actors walked in circles around it. This simple staging, conflating and juxtaposing two scenes, expertly demonstrated the dynamics that drove the youngsters towards destruction.

Better among the younger actors were Danny Kirrane as a superlative Benvolio and Tom Mothersdale as Mercutio. Kirrane's portly Benvolio was addicted to chips (even eating one with Tybalt's drool hanging off it) and a lovable loser in the Superbad vein. Less quick-witted than his friends, his laughter always came slightly too late, and his attempts at peacemaking saw him instantly pushed aside. When drunk at the party, his face moved beautifully between vacancy and giggling. Mercutio, meanwhile, was wired and energetic. The Queen Mab scene, played in darkness apart from handheld torches, saw him go to a dark place as his words ran away with him. Constantly on the brink of losing control, he pulled off the tricky job of remaining engaging while also being clearly the provocateur in the major struggles.

The first half was primarily about comedy. The party scene was played as a typical house party, with youngsters in fancy dress sitting drinking on external staircases, and Capulet getting merry on his own wine. The sexual banter between the young men was enthusiastic, though reliant on excessive groin grabbing and thrusting. The balcony scene, meanwhile, saw Romeo jumping up and down in eager delight, a puppy with a new toy. Yet a slightly darker edge was offered early on as Juliet was revealed to already have a knife in her bed with which she threatened the intruder on his first entrance.

The pivotal brawl between Mercutio and Tybalt very nearly ended without incident, as Romeo apologised to Tybalt and the angry Capulet drew breath and walked offstage. Mercutio, however, screamed after him and began playacting as a mocking cat. Then, as Tybalt again attempted to leave, Mercutio ran up behind him with syrups stolen from the aforementioned ice-cream cart and poured them on Tybalt's head. Tybalt turned slowly, snapped over his switchblade and, in a very quick confused scuffle, the incident ended. Mercutio, Benvolio and Romeo stood upright for a long time, delivering the lines as jokes, until Mercutio finally took off his shirt and revealed a huge bloodstain that drew all three up short. Mercutio only belatedly realised his own hurt, and his closing lines were spoken quietly as he was half-supported, half-dragged offstage.

The second half gave way to the more domestic story of the Capulets, which offered a few interesting decisions. While Keith Bartlett's Capulet was played quite broadly, positioning him as the bombastic tyrant, Caroline Faber's Lady Capulet was quiet and often moving. It was established early on that their marriage was deeply unhappy, and Lady Capulet was seen downing cocktails at the party and then kissing Tybalt passionately. After his murder, she became increasingly unhappy and expressed her sorrow by lashing out, as in her shouted demands that the wedding be postponed, which Capulet considered with a pause before ignoring entirely. The chasm between the two grew during the family conflict scene, in which Capulet threw Lady Capulet away from him forcefully, leaving her sobbing but also unwilling to defend Juliet. The deep problems of this family offered a sobering contrast to the high energy and sexual jokes of the first half, and Juliet now resorted to the knife with more serious intent, threatening to open her wrists before Friar Laurence.

At this point, Tunji Lucas's Paris became more important. In a horribly intimidating scene in Friar Laurence's cell, Paris adopted an angry air of assumption with Juliet, insisting that she declare love for him and forcing her face into his for a kiss. The actor towered over the diminutive Juliet, and the physical aggression of this moment was quite chilling, allowing for a parallel to be drawn with Juliet's parents. The desperation of the character was handled fittingly by Stewart, and culminated in a visually striking dream sequence after taking the drug, where she remained sitting upright in bed while the projected faces of her parents and the Nurse appeared in overblown proportions on the upstage wall, speaking across each other and dissolving into a frantic montage. She remained onstage, eyes open and wavering, while Benvolio appeared to report her death to Romeo.

The final image was of the two lovers lying together onstage while Capulet and Montague shook hands at a televised press conference on a balcony. With plenty stripped out (the initial discovery of Juliet's body; Paris's death; the arrests of Romeo's servant and the Friar; the recapitulation of everything that had taken place), this was a sudden ending and a visually neat one. The production failed to say anything particularly new about Romeo and Juliet, and rather took the easy way out with its superficial stylings, its crude humour and a resort to teen-pleasing bare chests and innuendo, rather than a mature engagement with the sex and violence at the heart of the play. There's no substitute for strong central performances and a command of the text, which too many productions of Romeo sorely lack. However, it clearly played well to its target audience and, in several of the supporting performances, offered a pacey and varied reading that kept the play, if not timeless, then at least temporarily contemporary.

February 24, 2011

Gnomeo and Juliet (Rocket Productions) @ Showcase Cinema, Coventry

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Film versions of Shakespeare are required, one way or another, to confront the docu-real potentiality of the medium in the transition from stage to screen. While a very few choose to exploit the possibilities for historical drama and lush scenography, the heightened language and inevitable familiarity of subject matter more often lead to a self-conscious awareness of the medium, which can be used to great effect (as in Julie Taymor's Titus, Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet et al.). Kelly Asbury's Gnomeo and Juliet fell into the latter camp. Rather than throw viewers directly into the world of the play, the film drew attention to its own inherent performativity and, indeed, theatricality, beginning with a red curtain and the sound of an orchestra tuning up. The Prologue entered to address the audience in modern dialogue, pointing out that the play we are about to see has been performed. A lot. Warning us that the Prologue itself is long and boring, he began to read from an epic scroll, pausing only to glare at the stage hooks protruding from the wings. Finally secure, he continued with the Prologue, until a trapdoor opens and swallowed him whole. Gnomeo and Juliet began.

Okay, I'm clearly having some fun. This was, after all, a computer animated children's film about garden gnomes, with a loose nod to Shakespeare. It was also produced by Elton John, who provided the soundtrack - thus, drag races were conducted to Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting; a date-preparation montage (with cute 80s stylisations) was underscored with Don't Go Breaking My Heart; and Stephen Merchant's gawky artist Paris transmuted into John himself as he serenaded Juliet with Your Song.

Asbury's film transplanted the action to a Stratford-upon-Avon back yard, split between house 2B and a house that is emphatically not '2B', owned by the elderly Miss Montague (Julie Walters) and Mr. Capulet (Richard Wilson, in a clear nod to his One Foot in the Grave role) respectively. This bickering couple insulted each other cordially over the garden fence, before leaving for the day in their Minis, honking furiously at one another. Once gone, their garden ornaments came to life in a playful feud over gardening (both gardens grew appropriately hued flowers) which escalated as the film went on - competitive lawnmower races, late night graffiti raids, then later all out carnage.

To Be Or Not To Be

Against this were set James McAvoy's Gnomeo and Emily Blunt's Juliet. Gnomeo, the only child of Lady Bluebury (Maggie Smith, who spoke reverently of her husband "May he rest in pieces") was the golden boy of the Blues, the champion drag-racer and fun-lover. Juliet, meanwhile, was overprotected by her father (the unmistakable Michael Caine) who kept her in a stone fairy castle where she tended flowers. Her ongoing protestation was against being treated as "delicate" and mewed up - and the extremely effective CG-rendering of the ceramic characters made their fragility a real threat. Juliet's ninja and kung-fu skills, as well as her easy command of power motors, belied the protectiveness of her father; but, in a surprisingly intelligent reading of the play's situation, the father remained oblivious of her own strength and ultimately resulted to literally gluing her to her castle prison. Retaining her own independent strength while being restrained by implacable forces, the character's entrapment actually served as an effective translation of the text.

Elsewhere, very little of Shakespeare's play was retained. Even "Gnomeo, Gnomeo" was paraphrased in modern language, rather than crowbarring in recognisable Shakespearean dialogue, allowing for a far more consistent text for children. There were neat references for the grown-ups though - Lady Blueberry's cry of "Let slip the dogs of war" was followed by a group of cute stone rabbits appearing in war paint; an angry bulldog was pushed out of the yard with cries of "Out, out" before an offscreen owner shouted "Damn Spot!"; and Gnomeo was ejected from the garden to placations of "Goodnight, sweet prince". The play's setting allowed the film to more explicitly position itself in relation to Shakespeare, however - after Gnomeo was carried off by a dog through the streets of Stratford (I recognised Church Street!), he found himself by Shakespeare's statue. Relating his story to the Bard (Patrick Stewart), Bill countered that the story sounded somewhat familiar, before warning Gnomeo that it would all end in tragedy. This Shakespeare was impersonal however; wrapped up in his own narcissistic love for tragedy, the statue became animated as he imagined the sounds of applause, curtain, and cries for "Author! Author!" at the expense of the angry Gnomeo's feelings.


There was plenty more for the grown-ups too, from the thong-wearing Italian gnome to the gentle double-entendres. I enjoyed picking up on the film in-jokes: obvious visual references to American Beauty (Ashley Jensen's Nanette, a fountain-frog in the Nurse's role, writhing in a bed of roses as Paris's song wooed her) and Grease (an utterly appalling climactic dance sequence, to a hideous remix of Crocodile Rock) were complemented by far more subtle references: one conjoined gnome turned to his partner and said "I wish I could quit you" (Brokeback Mountain); a plastic flamingo re-affixed his leg while saying "One word - Plastic!" (The Graduate); and an underwater sequence following Gnomeo across the bottom of a pond as projectiles whizzed past was a direct steal from the Omaha Beach sequence of Saving Private Ryan. Anyone catch any more?

The simple rewriting of the plot saw Juliet don ninja garb to go and steal a flower from the nearly abandoned Laurence garden, where Gnomeo had fled after a late night graffiti attack on the Red garden in vengeance for his earlier drag race defeat at the hands of the cheating Tybalt (a spectacularly and unambiguously evil Jason Statham). The two met on a greenhouse and immediately engaged in a playful courtship. While on a later date in the garden, they freed the plastic flamingo Featherstone (Jim Cummings, in a very rough approximation of the Friar Laurence role) from a garden shed. As the garden pranks got out of hand, however, Tybalt arranged for the Blues' prize flowers to be cut down. Ordered to take revenge, Gnomeo was caught in the Red garden by Juliet. Featherstone soothed them in his garden by telling his own back story, in which his human owners broke up, resulting in his partner flamingo being packed into a removal fun - other people's hate destroyed his love (an attempt at Toy Story levels of pathos which didn't really manage it, but simple enough). The pink flamingo, fittingly, brought Red and Blue back together, and they agreed to grow a garden together away from their families.

They were caught kissing by Benny (the wonderful Matt Lucas), who ran back across the alleyway towards his own house but was caught by Tybalt, who was waiting for him on his power-mower. Tybalt smashed Benny's hat and threatened to mow down the gnome himself; but Gnomeo gave chase and caused Tybalt to crash his mower and smash into bits (a surprisingly sudden moment of death for a kids film, disappointingly mitigated in the final dance as he reappeared glued together). Gnomeo was chased away, despite Juliet announcing her love for him to her appalled father, and he appeared to be run over by a truck. Juliet was glued to her castle in punishment, while Gnomeo made his pilgrimage to Shakespeare and back again.

Benny became prominent, however, as his vengeance took over. Stealing the old lady's credit card details (to the sounds of Bennie and the Jets, hysterically), he ordered the ultimate mower online - the Terrafirminator, whose advert (voiced by Hulk Hogan) was the absolute comic standout of the film, and should be immediately viewed here. Yet the promised machine went out of control and tore up both gardens, and Gnomeo arrived just in time to offer to die with the imprisoned Juliet. Handily, this being an animated cartoon, everyone survived, although the fate of the lovers was kept hidden long enough for the opposing families to reconcile.

Gnomeo and Juliet

As a run through of the basic plot, it was simple and entertaining, and supported by an eccentric cast of oddities (a Herculean garden gnome; the war rabbits; a fawn voiced by Ozzy Osbourne who served no discernable purpose whatsoever; and a voiceless mushroom called Shroom who followed Gnomeo around. The film's most obvious omission was a Mercutio figure; but by changing the rivalry to a friendly one that descended into one-upmanship, his purpose as a catalyst was no longer needed. The "death" of Tybalt, and the fragility of the gnomes themselves, gave enough of a sense of peril, particularly as the gardens were torn to shreds (this may have been more effective in 3D) to ram home the film's basic message - love is preferable to hate. It's reductive, but then it's also a perfectly justifiable moral to draw for kids from the text.

There's an important place for films like this, which don't aim to introduce kids to Shakespeare and don't try to do something worthy with the text. It's a simple use of recognisable names and tropes to sell a frothy animation that will undoubtedly do great business at the box office. And yet, there was enough wit and intelligence in the script (by, among others, Bunny Suicides legend Andy Riley) to make it a fun evening. Accusations of it bastardising Shakespeare that are circulating the internet seem to miss the point - it's hardly competing with the RSC, and it was fun to see an appropriation of Shakespeare for kids that was neither patronising nor compromised by fruitless gestures towards textual fidelity. As the Terrafirminator blew up, the distant statue of Shakespeare smugly muttered "Told you so", before the film gleefully revived its leads under the neon lights of a Club Tropicana water feature. This wasn't smug art, but it was good, clean fun.

March 26, 2010

Romeo and Juliet (RSC) @ The Courtyard Theatre

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From its very opening, Rupert Goold's new Romeo and Juliet was intent on forcing its audience to view a familiar play afresh. Sam Troughton's Romeo, in jeans and hoodie, wandered onto the stage with a camera, taking photographs as if a tourist (though this amateur stalker had a different kind of attraction in mind) while listening to an Italian-language tape that repeated the Prologue in both Italian and English. As Romeo saw his Verona anew, so too were we asked to throw aside our usual attitudes to Romeo and Juliet and rediscover the play.

The opening statement of intent pulled few punches. The brawl between Capulets and Montagues quickly accelerated against a background of Catholic candles and projected flames. Capulet and Montague themselves engaged in a protracted broadsword battle while their wives scratched at each other's faces; servants tussled with a variety of improvised weapons, sending up jets of smoke from the stage as they struck each other; and finally, in a wonderfully powerful moment, the stuttering Benvolio turned to see Joseph Arkley's Tybalt, with heavy Scottish brogue, emerge as if from Hell itself, through the iron bars and flames. Striking a match, Tybalt threw it to the floor, provoking a firebolt to roar up in Benvolio's face. This monster proceeded to tie Benvolio to a stake and smother him with petrol, and the makeshift cremation was only prevented by the last minute arrival of Escalus and a barrage of fire extinguishers.

Heat and fire pervaded the production, from the bloody rage of Romeo's later murder of Tybalt to the passionate flames between the young lovers. It was well suited to a rare production of the play that had genuine emotional clout at every level. Goold's Romeo and Juliet was a tragedy of impetuosity, uncontrollable passion and instinctive decisions that saw its young protagonists running headlong towards destruction.

This was perhaps best realised in Jonjo O'Neill's spectacular Mercutio, in a performance one can only describe as "unleashed". Dashing in cape and peroxide blonde hair, O'Neill really was the gentleman "that loves to hear himself talk" (II.iii.138), running off his long speeches with a frenzied energy that at times became terrifying in its vehemence (Oliver Ryan's twitchy Benvolio spent much of his time looking at his friend aghast). Repeatedly lost in self-delusion and performative narcissism, O'Neill received spontaneous applause for several of his set-pieces, most notably a hysterically hideous interlude where, calling for the hidden Romeo, he began miming Romeo's copulation with Rosaline. Getting engrossed in his own thrusting action, the simulacrum became more violent and ecstatic, before Mercutio mimed actually crawling inside Rosaline and began an entirely surreal Alice in Wonderland parody which saw him taking tea with invisible strangers and squelching around in vaginal juices before, in a paroxysm of terror, rushing to escape and "rebirthing" himself into the world. Appalling to describe, it nonetheless had the audience quite literally collapsing in the aisles. His mockery of the Nurse, meanwhile, became an improvised music hall routine culminating in his screaming of "WHORE!" in her face followed by a slapstick chase around the stage. This character existed beyond the boundaries of normal social behaviour, his reckless excesses rendering him at once entertaining and extremely dangerous. These extra-textual performances did threaten to unbalance the production, which invariably struggled to recover following his grand exits, but served the larger purpose of destabilising the story and making it unpredictable once more.

O'Neill's performance was also part of a concerted effort to make the play funny once more, particularly in the first half. From the opening disarming of the Capulets and Montagues, where Capulet laid down a veritable arsenal of personal weaponry concealed about him, to Mercutio's brandishing of a bicycle pump against Tybalt and the Nurse's flirtatious treatment of Friar Laurence, there was plenty to laugh at in this world. Grown-ups were as impulsive and reckless as their children; and while this was a source of comedy, it was also a source of great pathos. A breakfast scene between the Capulets was a highlight as Mariah Gale's Juliet was berated for defying her father. In dressing gown, Richard Katz cut an initially comic figure as Capulet before bringing out a terrifying intensity and violence against his daughter: throwing water at her, screaming in her face and leaving her sobbing on the floor. These were not the stock actions of a stage tyrant, but the all-too-believable bullying of a recognisable father. Even more upsetting was the sight of Christine Entwistle's Lady Capulet in the same scene. Fabulous in her earlier appearances at the Capulet's ball, Lady Capulet was badly hit by the death of Tybalt, and Entwistle transformed into a dewigged, chain-smoking manic depressive, bitter at both family and foes and careless of her daughter's anguish. Following these, Noma Dumezweni's Nurse encouraged and comforted Juliet, giving the impression of care but then going on to tell her to take a second husband. Between the three, then, Juliet was attacked physically by her father, passively by her mother and insidiously by her Nurse, driving her to a peak of despair that finally broke forth as she stood in Friar Laurence's cell, pressing a knife against her chest and screaming for release. The potential of this string of action in the hands of good actors was fully realised here, investing the audience in Juliet's plight.

The casting of Gale and Sam Troughton as the titular lovers was perhaps the production's best decision: rather than prioritise the appearance of youth and pluck actors straight out of drama school (which has been the killing blow for so many recent productions), the RSC recognised that experienced actors can act young, while also having the far greater range earned through years of performing Shakespeare. Gale's Juliet was marvellous, a teenager beginning to become confident with her body and public image but also prone to regressing into childish habits when cornered. She danced a wild and charged dance with masked revellers for the benefit of her father's party guests and was confident enough to kiss Romeo in the centre of the throng and then leave him hanging for more; yet in only the next scene she was kicking her heels while sitting on the ledge of her balcony, a child once more. Juliet was, in the best possible sense, not an innocent child: she knew what she wanted and how to get it, but her insistence on doing things properly and not rushing positioned her as the partner thinking of the long term.

Troughton's Romeo, meanwhile, was a creature of instinct and immediate gratification. Every time he kissed Juliet he made to start taking off his clothes, and had to be restrained by her. His inconstancy in changing affections, and his overdramatising of every situation, was lightly mocked but sympathetic, treated as the inevitable state of youth. This Romeo had at least one eye constantly on the heavens; racked by internal conflict (right from the start, a physical tic had him pressing a finger hard into his temples, as if suffering constantly from a superfluity of thoughts) and external, he addressed Fate, gods and the stars as a matter of course, relating his own suffering to its universal significance. As a counterpart to Mercutio, he was similarly preoccupied with the extremes of emotion and understanding, and his speed of action and speech left him little time to think. His stillest moment was at the close of the long first half: with murder, marriage and banishment all behind him, he finally approached Juliet's balcony, climbed up and embraced her, the lights going down as they began to consummate their marriage. This moment of stillness was pivotal to Romeo. When we next met him in exile, his greeting of the news of Juliet's death was met in relative calm and his subsequent actions were desperate but considered. Sex, for this Romeo, was the moment of growing up.

Among the minor characters, some of Goold's decisions worked better than others. The decision to have Gruffudd Glyn's Balthasar deliver his news of Juliet's death in a broken falsetto song was tonally disruptive: it was presumably meant to be a ritualised moment of mourning, but instead had the audience laughing. Far better was the decision to clothe Patrick Romer's Apothecary (the second time he's played the role for the RSC in the last five years) identically to Romeo, the two hooded men mirroring each other as they exchanged their respective poisons. Dyfan Dwyfor's Peter was comic and elegantly dressed as a page, but pleasingly not made ridiculous. James Howard's Paris was dignified, and David Carr's Escalus brought a strong sense of personal emotion into his pronouncements.

Dumezweni's Nurse was a strong comic presence throughout the play, self-possessed and sassy whether helping to dress Lady Capulet or flirting in a mask at the Capulet's Ball. She even enjoyed Mercutio's initial taunting, until his excesses incited her to physically threaten him. The tenderness between her and Juliet made her final "betrayal" of her ward the more heartbreaking from Juliet's perspective. This relationship neatly mirrored that of Romeo and Mercutio, whose earlier likeness made Mercutio's condemning of the two houses the more powerful. Stabbed by a retracting blade concealed in Tybalt's glove, the humour of his dying situation never left him, but as he staggered backwards up a flight of steps (ascending towards the bright lights of the afterlife), his growing distance from Romeo at ground level physically realised their irrevocable separation.

The same flight of steps led down to the Capulet's tomb for a well-performed finale. Aside from toying with the audience by having Juliet stir behind Romeo's back before he drank the poison, the emotion of the dual deaths was effective, particularly as Juliet stirred to find Romeo's head in her lap but point-blank refused to accept what she saw. Forbes Masson's Friar Laurence (very strong throughout) stood at the top of the steps pleading with her to leave, but the blocking meant she could see nothing but the head of her beloved in her lap, at which she finally, emotionally, broke down.

In an intelligent final twist, the mix of Elizabethan and contemporary costume elements that had run throughout the play was exchanged in the final moments for a deliberately uniform modern mundanity of dress. Balthasar accompanied Romeo to the tomb in full Elizabethan dress, but was brought back by the police in a hoodie and trainers. Police detectives with radios descended into the tomb, accompanied by the Capulets and Montagues in everyday clothes. This simple visual shift translated the melodramatic tragedy into the kind of news story that we're all familiar with, as parents tried to make sense of something they had no way of comprehending. Romeo and Juliet lay frozen, out of time, but to their parents the paint was entirely present, and for the disillusioned and pessimistic police officers it was even routine. Our youthful excesses and romanticisation of suicide and drama may lead us to tragedy, but the results of those tragedy are neither romantic nor dramatic. Where Romeo anticipated universal significance in his death, he received only a domestic mourning from his grieving parents. It was this that seemed to be the ultimate point of Goold's reading, a downbeat end to a powerful production.

This review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.