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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.

May 14, 2009

Romeo and Juliet @ Shakespeare's Globe

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The desire to cast Romeo and Juliet as young as possible is deep-ingrained in theatre directors. In Dominic Dromgoole's new production for Shakespeare's Globe, for example, the actors playing Juliet, Benvolio and Tybalt all make their professional stage debut. It's an ongoing risk: the potential gains in youth and energy need to be weighed against the potential disadvantages of an inexperienced cast carrying weighty roles.

Ellie Kendrick's Juliet presented a perfect example of many of these strengths and weaknesses. I had the impression that she may have had a cold, but her meek Juliet was often difficult to hear even from my position leaning on the front of the stage, often seeming to forget the need to project when speaking to actors standing next to her. Her movement, too, was oddly stilted, her arms in particular hanging limp when not actively engaged in gestures. Yet there was a raw vulnerability and intensity in her performance that came through tremendously in times of trouble: as Ian Redford's volatile Capulet attacked her for her disobedience, she quailed before him, prompting her mother and nurse to physically step between the two to protect her. Kendrick's Juliet was a fragile thing, a believably young girl babied by her nurse. For this reason, she had to put every ounce of her strength and will into her relationship with Romeo, learning as she went along and leaving herself with nothing else to hang onto. Upon Romeo's death, there was simply no reason for her to carry on living: she was invested entirely in a dead man.

Dromgoole's production was full and fast, including both choruses as well as most of the servant and musican scenes. These took on a framing role around which the production was structured. The consort group of four singers (Jack Farthing, Graham Vick, Fergal McElherron and James Lailey) entertained the crowd with period folk songs before the performance began, including one re-worded to act as a warning of the perils of using mobile phones or cameras during the performance, and in doing so set up Romeo and Juliet itself as a folk song, a timeless story to be told and re-told. This reading was supported as the same consort group reappeared as musicians and choruses throughout, underscoring key scenes with laments or love songs and interacting with the rest of the company in a host of minor roles (Peter, the Apothecary, Friar John etc.). This had the further impact of keeping an actor-audience dynamic alive and explicit throughout the production, inviting us to engage with the play as a tale.

The single most interesting character reading came from Philip Cumbus as a Mercutio who appeared to me to be suffering from severe depression. Lively he may have been, but his liveliness was bitter rather than joyful, a deep-rooted misery prompting him to rail on the world. The Queen Mab speech reduced him to tears as he complained of the nothingness of dreams, and his drunken screaming for Romeo, initially boisterous and amusing, ended up as a sad, quiet series of pleas to his absent friend. Romeo's obsessions with love had torn him apart from his friend, who was irreconcilably struck by the loss, and his final betrayal by Romeo, holding his arms while Tybalt stabbed him, was all the more poignant for it. Jack Farthing's Benvolio, on the other hand, was the wilder of the pair, a public school boy type reminiscent of Hugh Laurie's George in Blackadder Goes Forth. Benvolio took childish delight in crude humour, phallic thrusting and jokes about sex, but had little of the wit to come up with them himself. He therefore hung on Romeo and Mercutio's every word and laughed loudly to show he understood the jokes, then engaged whole-heartedly in physical miming of sexual activity at every opportunity.

Capulets and Montagues wore the usual red/blue colour scheme to differentiate them, although in a nice touch Romeo and Juliet changed costumes after the balcony scene, defiantly adopting each other's colours for their own use, and thus marking their newly-minted separation from their own families. Romeo's bright red doublet and hose, however, fired Tybalt's anger even further, he taking it as a further insult to his people. Ukweli Roach's Tybalt was particularly strong, an angry young man frustrated by the constraints of politeness enforced on him by Capulet. His final battle with Romeo was physically brutal, the two both losing their swords early on and instead scrapping with hands and nails. Romeo's bloodlust rose, and in addition to stabbing Tybalt he throttled, kicked and beat the body until finally dragged away by Benvolio.

While there were no extensions of the stage into the yard as with many of last seaon's productions, a large square balcony had been constructed, jutting out from the gallery space and over the main stage. While obviously serving for the balcony and bedroom scenes, the use of the higher level was most effective in the final scene. A spiral staircase led directly down from a hole in the balcony, which was covered with a grate as Juliet's body was laid on a bier centre-stage. The effect was to turn the entire main stage into a basement crypt, while Romeo and Paris entered on the upper level, their fight occurring in the much narrower balcony area and climaxing with the wounded Paris falling down the spiral staircase into the tomb. This simple staging worked well, conveying the impression of a dark below-space with minimal effort.

Much of the play's comedy came from Tom Stuart's Paris and McElherron's Peter. Paris, in this play, was a socially inept and pretentiously false youth, with very little sense of social propriety. 3.4 opened late at night, with Paris bright-eyed and apparently settled in for the night and the Capulets looking at each other with weary eyes as Paris failed to respond to the hints of "'Tis very late." His ecstatic hug of Capulet after his agreement to their engagement was similarly nearly followed by an embrace of Lady Capulet, who managed to hold him off at the last minute by extending her hand for him to kiss instead. Peter, meanwhile, was a constant ball of energy: screeching lines, acting out the names of the invited guests as Romeo read out his list, turning even the smallest act into a drama, all to entertaining effect. This Peter was particularly self-conscious of his role as entertainer, all but elbowing other characters in the ribs to get them to laugh at his jokes, and his regular appearances accelerated the play's pace.

Adetomiwa Edun as Romeo imbued the character with an extraordinary amount of energy, enough to allow the audience to forget his melancholy very quickly - even in his first scene describing Rosaline, he found humour in his own moans. During the balcony scene he was constantly mobile, skipping around the stage in delight, unable to contain his excitement. While there was never a sense of the sexual element of their relationship, Edun compensated for this with his buoyant enthusiasm and good-natured devotion to his younger partner. As he prepared to leave after their night together, he surrendered with good grace to her pleas to stay, his "Come, death, and welcome; Juliet wills it so" a genuine offer to remain with her in defiance of all external forces.

The play moved at a fair lick, moving quickly past moments lingered on elsewhere. Graham Vick's excellent Apothecary, for example, exploded up from a stage trap like a morality devil, peering out in answer to Romeo's summons, and was played with an earthy dignity, the exchange businesslike and ominous, then over in a moment, the Apothecary disappearing once more into the bowels of the stage. The impression given in these final scenes was therefore one of providence and inescapable fate: poisons were miraculously available, letters unforeseeably went astray. As the play moved towards its final resolution, the pace never let up, both Romeo and Juliet's deaths being the instinctual and emotional responses to the very moment rather than drawn-out affairs. In this, the play became a more relentless tragedy than I've often given it credit for, beautifully brought out by Rawiri Paratene's Friar Laurence in the crypt, the one character still desperately fighting against the onslaught of time, panic-stricken yet unable to influence anyone.

The traditional final jig was beautifully done. The Prince's final words were answered immediately in song, as the chorus began a lament for the dead lovers. As the rest of the cast joined the stage, the bodies slowly came to life, voices rising in a swell before the tempo suddenly doubled and a joyful final dance began. These redemptive jigs fit beautifully at the end of tragedies, and was enthusiastically received. A decent start to this year's "Young Hearts" season, and definitely one of the better Romeos I've been fortunate enough to catch.

December 08, 2008

Romeo and Juliet @ The Courtyard Theatre

Writing about web page

I'm not going to beat around the bush with this review. The RSC's new production of Romeo and Juliet is one of the worst productions of Shakespeare I've ever had the misfortune to sit through.

As hard as I tried to find some positive aspects to the production, I honestly couldn't find anything to redeem it. A Godfather-influenced aesthetic (trumpet/accordion soundtrack, suits and flick-knives, dynastical feuds) was a nice idea, if obvious, but added little to the production. A beautiful stage set for the final crypt scene (played in near darkness, lit with torch light against dry ice) was atmospheric, but was the first bit of visual interest in a 3-and-a-quarter hour production. I can't even claim that the production was mercifully short - it was slow, long and dreary.

The most negative aspects came in the performances. To be fair, the vast majority of the cast were new to the RSC and many were relatively early in their professional careers. This will always be the downfall of Romeo and Juliet- casting actors who are simply not strong enough for the demanding material. Anneika Rose was particularly awful as Juliet: frankly, I felt sorry for her. From the boring (she spent a ridiculous amount of time acting while sitting on a bed, including the balcony scene) to the appalling (even a little amount of distress at seeing your husband dead?!), her scenes simply never worked. David Dawson as Romeo was a little better, but the balcony scene, staged with just a bed centrestage and therefore putting all focus on the performances, was slow, long and entirely without feeling. This was Shakespeare just spoken (and spoken not well), not performed.

The comic scenes were almost entirely without humour, despite the efforts of Owain Arthur's Peter. The play's length was in part occasioned by the retaining of even minor moments such as Peter's conversation with the musicians - here, with no discernable purpose or merit. I had more time for Gyuri Sarossy's Mercutio who, while not doing anything hugely interesting or memorable with the role, at least brought some welcome energy to the production, sorely lacking elsewhere.

Even the fight scenes were poorly realised. Director Neil Bartlett used some self-consciously dramatic devices which not only had no impact, but worked against the action by interrupting it and reducing the pace to a crawl. The play opened with the cast assembling and looking pointedly around at the audience (are we meant to identify or feel responsible for this mafia-like world of rich kids, nobles and cantankerous patriarchs? A device better reserved for a socially-deprived setting), before beginning the fight. Bartlett used a stop-start approach which saw the action repeatedly frozen while bits of dialogue were performed, before the physical action was restarted. Any sense of momentum was repeatedly arrested, making this introductory scene far too long and dull to be of any interest. Another device used frequently during the first half of the play saw members of the cast click their fingers at the ceiling to change lights and begin new scenes, which demonstrated little other than that Bartlett had seen The Glass Menagerie. Happily, most of these devices were forgotten during the course of the play, which was welcome and also flagged up the irrelevance of their earlier inclusion.

Even among smaller parts, the acting was repeatedly disappointing. Ben Ashton's Paris, upon being confronted with his 'dead' bride-to-be, exhibited..... mild irritation. Eva Magyar's Lady Capulet went for full histrionics, while Julie Legrand's Nurse, best described as a cross between Dot Cotton and Lily Savage, grated rather than amused. Mark Holgate at least conjured up a visage of Italianate menace as Tybalt, but the less said about James G. Bellorini's bumbling Friar John and Craig Ritchie's wooden Apothecary the better. Even James Clyde, the actor with the wonderful voice who was the towering highlight of Bartlett's Twelfth Night, overacted wildly as Friar Laurence, as if he was Mercutio doing the Queen Mab speech.

I'm aware that this is an ungenerous and rather forceful review, and I feel slightly bad as I write it. I'm sure that many of those involved had worked hard, even if that work didn't translate to my audience experience on the night. At the same time, though, I feel it's crucially important that the RSC not produce work of this sub-amateur standard. Northern Broadsides and Shakespeare's Globe have both produced Romeos this year that, while far from perfect, at least brought energy and freshness to one of the most recognisable plays on the English stage. This production added nothing to the play for those of us familiar with it, and did little to recommend itself to first-timers. We were sat among a group of schoolkids who spent most of the production texting, chatting among themselves and generally ignoring the play, and I couldn't blame them one bit; if this play had been my introduction to Shakespeare as a teenager, I can't imagine I would have bothered again. If the RSC wants to reach out and change the face of Shakespeare eduction, it needs to have good productions at the heart of its strategy, or the good work of its outreach will be undone.

August 20, 2008

Gnomeo and Juliet

I've just been accused of snobbery for being dismayed at this news article. To summarise, briefly.

A new CGI musical spoof of Romeo and Juliet.

Titled : Gnomeo and Juliet.

Starring James McAvoy as a gnome.

The film being primarily a vehicle for the music of Elton John.

* * * *

Snob I may be. Doesn't mean it's going to be any good though!

July 03, 2008

Regional Schools Celebration @ The Courtyard Theatre

On Monday, the Courtyard Theatre hosted the Regional Schools Celebration, a culmination of sorts of the first phase of the RSC's Stand Up for Shakespeare campaign. Featuring a full programme of nine 25 minute playlets by school groups ranging from primary to 6th form, interspersed with awards ceremonies and talking heads, the event was a large-scale public celebration of the work the RSC are doing in schools across the country.

Stand Up for Shakespeare

I wasn't going to write a blog about this event, much less a review, as I thought it would be inappropriate given the nature of the event. However, I haven't been able to get some of the playlets out of my head. The ideas and work that went into them were in several cases extremely interesting, and the work deserved attention (as Michael Coveneyagrees on his blog). Sadly I was only able to stay for the morning, but I thought I would include a breakdown of what I saw as, particularly when you consider the age of the kids, there was stuff here that I would really like to remember.

The day itself was compered by Hardeep Singh Kohli, with contributions in the morning from both Michael Boyd and Michelle Gomez - a nice gesture, having the Artistic Director and current leading actor in attendance. Hardeep himself did a solid job of hosting, with a whole selection of terrible puns that were primarily designed to cover the changes between casts. Nonetheless, he seemed to have a genuine enthusiasm for the event, and the atmosphere in the Courtyard was good throughout.

Hardeep Singh Kohli
Hardeep Singh Kohli

Julius Caesar by Queen's Park Primary, West Kilburn, London

The first show began with the theatre being plunged into darkness. A loud epic soundtrack boomed out, while the children tiptoed onto the stage from various sides, shining torches in their faces and onto the audience before gathering in the centre and becoming the conspirators of Caesar. Seeing school drama benefit from the technical capabilities of the RSC's main house was one of the pleasures of the day, though this was the only production to achieve such a startling effect from it. The production tapped into ideas both of surveillance and of street violence; opening with the conspirators and the murder, two 'newsreaders' (stood on the side balconies) then took over the reporting of the event through a series of news-style flashbacks and vox pops with dissatisfied Romans. A focus on the gullible doggedness of the crowd to believe whoever was talking made the orations scene particularly interesting, the crowd caring passionately about the last thing that was spoken. To this end, the playlet captured this school's fascination with the power of propaganda, which ultimately destroyed everyone. A fascinating insight into the contemporary resonances which the staff and students had found in the play, and also a particularly impressive performance from the young girl playing Brutus. Throughout the day I was impressed at how well the young people held the Courtyard stage, but Brutus in this play was superb, clear and powerful all the way.

Henry V - In Love and War by Fred Longworth School, Atherton, Manchester

The most sophisticated of the five plays, and practically deserving of a full review of its own. Fred Longworth's retelling of Henry V was an innovative and fascinating one that brought several original ideas to the text. It had been trimmed down from an hour long, but in this 25 minute version we caught a glimpse of the excellent work that had gone into it. Taking a slant that focussed on issues of love and marriage, this production centred Katherine, playing her scenes almost in full. Adding in dialogue from Romeo and Juliet, a new narrative was created that saw the King of France commanding his daughter to prepare for marriage with Henry in case of defeat, much to her disgust and panic. To this end, in a genius scene, her French lesson became a comically violent preparation, with her miming how she was going to use her fingers, nails and 'bilbows' to punch, scratch, poke and gut her 'enemy'. In the final scene, in another excellent decision, Henry mixed Shakespearean dialogue with contemporary phrases to emphasise the 'plainness' of his speech, eventually winning her over through her directness. The Chorus was played by three young actresses who were all extremely articulate verse-speakers, splitting the lines between them and throwing a tennis ball to various actors in order to start the scenes. I've heard good Choruses before, but for some reason the strong Manc accents worked perfectly with the verse, and were definitely the day's best vocal performances. I have no hesitation in saying that, even as abbreviated as it was, this was better than some of, say, the drama school performances in the Complete Works. Excellent work.

Romeo and Juliet - Friendship Never Dies by Churchill Gardens Primary, Westminster, London

This version of Romeo, performed by a group of very young children, drew its power from the knowledge that the children go to school in a particularly rough part of East London (according to Hardeep, anyway) that suffers badly from knife and gang culture. Almost entirely ignoring the romance aspects of the play, this production stripped Romeo down to its streetfighting, finding in it a message about retribution and the culture of respect that the children, despite their age, clearly knew all too well. Here, all the children came on stage to shout the play's early lines at each other in staged violence, while at the Capulet's Ball they danced to modern R&B (the guest list that Peter carried included such names as Beyonce and Rhiannon). After the ball, though, the narrative interestingly switched to Tybalt, stewing in his bedroom at the insult and disrespect that Romeo had paid him by coming to the party. Other actors voiced his thoughts while he paced back and forth. The play then skipped forward to the climactic duel, with Tybalt killing Mercutio and Romeo Tybalt, with plenty of focus on the young Romeo's decision to take his knife and continue the cycle of violence. The play's closing image, then, was of the Prince ordering Romeo to be dragged off, screaming, to prison while Juliet tried to follow him and was held back. No tragic deaths here, simply the inevitable - and very modern - consequences of a life of violence. Shocking in its bleakness and in the young children's grasp of matters of life and death, this was both disturbing and vital, Shakespeare used for exploring issues of monumental impact.

Mr Mac and the Ruler Army by Milton Abbot Primary, Devon

The final two productions didn't have the same impact, but were still entertaining and provided good comedy value. Milton Abbot School translated Macbeth to a primary school, "Dunsin Lane", with Mr. Duncan as the Headmaster, Mr. Mack and Mrs. Banks as teachers and a chorus of garishly made-up dinnerladies as the witches. The children obviously had great fun contemporising the play, with Duncan's murder becoming his expulsion for helping children cheat (deviously engineered by Mack), while Mack's tyranny was shown through his introduction of a 12 hour schoolday and no playtime. The contemporising eventually fell apart (Mr. Duff and Mr. Mack settled their differences through, erm, a sword fight!),  but it remained an entertaining and often funny take on Macbeth.

Supernatural in Shakespeare by Fred Nicholson School, Norfolk

By far the most bizarre of the morning's productions, Fred Nicholson (a school with a particular focus on students with special needs) took the Mechanicals of A Midsummer Night's Dream and brought them onto the Jeremy Kyle Show in an effort to resolve the differences and squabbles caused by Bottom always taking the best parts for himself. This was a highly unusual idea, of course, but one which allowed them to explore ideas of bullying in a contemporary context. Heavily reliant on audience participation, the boys did a good job of encouraging audience participation through cheering and booing. Through the middle of this skipped Puck, who played tricks on the young actors throughout. Regardless of the content, it was clear that a great deal of work and creative thought had gone into this playlet and, as with all the groups performing, the students seemed to have developed themselves through the act of rehearsing and performing as well as learning their Shakespeare, and that was the most important thing.

I couldn't stay for the afternoon, but I was sorry to leave. I won't lie, I expected that the day would be something of a chore, but I was very pleased to be proved wrong. The work done by the young people was eminently watchable and I was surprised at how enjoyable the day was. I'm not the right person to comment on the RSC's education strategy, on the methodologies being employed or the manifesto that "Stand Up for Shakespeare" presents, but the day showed a large group of children who had got a great deal out of exploring Shakespeare practically, and that can't be bad.

June 27, 2008

Romeo and Juliet @ Coventry Cathedral

It had to happen in a week of open-air theatre. The sun shone gloriously on Monday for Warwick Student Arts Festival's The Tempest, Shakespeare's Globe cast a cool shadow over the midday Midsummer Night's Dream audience on Tuesday and Footsbarn's tent protected the crowds on Tocil Fields from the elements on Wednesday. It couldn't last. Tonight, the heavens opened, and a severely depleted crowd sat in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral peering out from under umbrellas through what, as the night wound on, became a raging rainstorm that left us cold, wet, miserable and aching from the effort of holding onto our umbrellas. A worse night to be watching Shakespeare in the open air, barring snow or hail, would have been hard to imagine.

So, all credit to the brave troupe of actors from Shakespeare's Globe who, in the true spirit of touring, ploughed on through the downpour for two and a half hours and performed the best Romeo and Juliet I've seen to date. Using the pared-down dictates of touring to best advantage, director Elizabeth Freestone created a fast and funny production that succeeded in retaining the sodden audience to the end, which is no small testament to its achievement. Special mention goes to Dominique Ball who spent much of the second act wearing little more than a sheet yet didn't seem to shiver once.

A cast of just eight doubled the parts, making for some interesting moments; Conrad Westmaas, for example, doubled Capulet and Montague, meaning that he spoke both sets of reconciliatory words in the final scene, a neat touch visually demonstrating the combined grief of the two families. Peter, meanwhile, was shared out between most of the cast by passing around a brown apron, in one instance the actors even swapping mid-scene. The simple set (a flat square playing area with a battered '60s camper van parked at the back) was conducive to this playful approach, with the van providing the main entrance and exit points for most characters, giving the impression of a TARDIS-like space inside. Juliet made her bedroom on the van's roof, while the Nurse called for her while peeping through the curtained windows. It added nothing to the interpretation, but made for a fun and informal backdrop, and was well used for the Apothecary who became an addled traveller in a van full of drugs.

The ruins of the old cathedral in Coventry. The stage was set up at the far end, with audience on three sides around.

The play began in an appropriately informal manner, with the Prince making the usual announcement about mobile phones and paying a small tribute to the space, then walking away. Turning back, he said "Oh, and one more thing. Two households....". At the end of his prologue, the rest of the cast emerged in casual '60s costume (jeans, open shirts, light dresses and coloured bandanas/neckerchiefs to signify allegiance) and began a formation dance, which quickly descended into violence as the actors barged into each other and eventually started a full brawl. The text was effectively edited here, with snatches of shouted dialogue introducing the key characters without the long verbal build-up.

The acting was good throughout, and the actors had to work especially hard to keep up the energy, an energy not reciprocated by the audience who were generally quite unresponsive throughout, mostly from trying to prevent their umbrellas and blankets blowing away. Nonetheless, much of the production was very funny and still managed to draw laughs from frozen lips. Perri Snowdon was very amusing as Paris- he giggled like a schoolboy upon kissing Juliet in Friar Lawrence's cell, and turned up on the wedding morning strumming a ukulele and singing, only pausing to happily tell audience members "I'm getting married today!". The standout comic performance came from Nitzan Sharron's Mercutio though. Filled with a manic energy, this Mercutio wasn't dangerous or dark, stood by his friends (for instance, replacing Benvolio in a dance at the Capulets Ball on the point of Benvolio having to reveal his face) and took great pleasure in innocent mockery. He had a commanding presence, insisting on acting out his madcap monologues to the full. His death scene was particularly good; the brawl with Tybalt began with simple pushing until one of them took a harder punch than expected to the face. The jostling then began in more earnest, the two rolling on the floor while Benvolio restrained Romeo from intervening. Tybalt only drew a switchblade on the very point of re-entering the fray, stabbing quickly before putting it away and marching off quickly. This small thing was especially effective as Romeo and Benvolio genuinely had no idea what had happened, and it was only revealed gradually as Mercutio thrashed on the floor. His dying words were a mixture of angry shouts and pained squeals, he losing control over the pitch of his voice as he experience agonising pangs. Barely able to carry him, Benvolio finally escorted him off to die.

Both Dominique Bull and Marsha Henry made their theatrical debuts for this production, playing Juliet and the Nurse respectively, and both gave interesting performances. Bull was an unusually strong Juliet, both physically and emotionally, and there was a great deal of anger in her, particularly in the "Romeo, Romeo" speech where her frustration boiled up and saw her shouting at the stars. The dynamics of the Capulet household were striking, and the clear cause of this frustration. Juliet was an independently minded young woman lashing out against the restrictions placed upon her. Her father, meanwhile, bordered on the tyrannical in his organising of his daughter's life, and during the family argument he made as if to strike both wife and daughter, leaving Juliet cowering on the floor. Lady Capulet, played by Bridgitta Roy, was caught between the two people she loved. She objected strongly to the haste of the wedding, but was unable to articulate her concerns properly and was talked over by her husband, often reducing her to tears. Yet after the fight, when Juliet turned to her mother for support, she burst into tears again and stormed out, unable to take sides. This intriguing glimpse into the Capulets' home-life suggested a great deal of domestic strife, and explained Juliet's willingness to escape from her family.

While Bull's verse-speaking was occasionally not the clearest, this was nonetheless a good debut. Henry's was also solid, but here voice was the strongest point, Henry's excellent singing providing a score for moments both celebratory (a cabaret at the ball) and tragic (the discovery of Juliet's 'body'). Otherwise she gave a fine performance as the Nurse, combining a playful maternal care for Juliet with a fiery Caribbean temper that saw her fuming at Mercutio's jibes and chasing Romeo with murder in her eyes, to good comic effect.

The young lovers were poorly served by liberal editing of the final scene, which ran all of the events in the crypt together in quick succession and felt very rushed. Admittedly, this may have been the sodden actors understandably sprinting for the finish line, but either way it was a disappointing finale to the love story. Elsewhere, the leads did good work and created a largely convincing romance, particularly in their first meeting where tentative awkwardness dissolved into a passionate kiss which left them both gasping. By an extraordinary stroke of serendipity, at the exact second that their masks were lowered and their eyes met, the cathedral bells chimed out the hour. While the balcony scene dragged a little, the morning "Wilt thou be gone" scene was pacey and heartfelt, Romeo climbing down the side of the van from the roof which doubled as Juliet's bedroom. Alan Morrissey provided some good work as Romeo, matching Mercutio for energy in their shared scenes and at other times sharing his wistful casualness with the audience. His melancholy was worn fairly lightly, and he was always ready to burst into a passion of anger or love, yet restrained them with calmness.

The final image of the play saw the two lovers lying still on a table under the glow of fairy lights that extended from the van. The rest of the company removed their bandanas and wristbands, laying their colours over the pair and sheltering them from the rain with their combined family emblems. It was a nice final image, and the shared grief was affecting. By this time the rain was torrential, which fitted the mood and gave an affecting atmosphere to the scene. It's testament to the cast that they kept their audience (which unfortunately depleted during the interval) entertained and in the space until the end and, despite the elements, gave the best Romeo and Juliet I've seen to date. Considering the conditions, this was a performance all involved should be proud of.

A version of this review is available at Shakespeare Revue.

April 13, 2008

Romeo and Juliet @ Liverpool Playhouse

Perhaps the biggest problem with Romeo and Juliet is that it is so familiar to us. It seems to have formed most people's introduction to Shakespeare in schools, contains some of the best-known and most-quoted lines in Shakespeare and, of course, was the basis for the most successful (and pervasive) Shakespearean film of recent times, Baz Lurhmann's Romeo + Juliet. I've only actually seen one stage production of the play prior to last night, and yet I feel as if I've never stopped watching it. However, watching a live performance, one realises that in actual fact there is much of the play that remains fresh and unfamiliar, and that even a play which has received so much attention is still ripe for interpretation.

Northern Broadsides' take on the play is the first Shakespearean play I've seen them tackle, and it was presented with the same bluff directness and good humour that they brought to Lisa's Sex Strike last year. Particularly being in a Northern venue, the company's accents (and modern dress) gave the production a feel of accessibility and immediacy, as if this was something that could be happening just down the road. The easygoing atmosphere meant that this relevance didn't feel forced, just natural.

Romeo and Juliet publicity art

Broadsides also know how to make a production fun, particularly in Conrad Nelson's music. The unquestioned highlight was the Capulet's Ball, one of the production's few musical diversions. A five piece band sang an upbeat folk song called More Light!, drawing out Shakespeare's lines on the party preparation to create an instantly hummable number that underscored the entire scene. The rest of the company clog-danced to the music while a masked Mercutio played a trombone and Barrie Rutter's MC-like Capulet called for more refrains. The actors clearly enjoyed creating this informal party and it was extremely successful in setting the surroundings for Romeo and Juliet's wooing. Less fun, but more beautiful, were the handbells that accompanied Paris' morning song for Juliet, which turned into funereal chiming after her 'body' was discovered.

Several of the comic performances were also very enjoyable. Peter Toon was an unusual Mercutio; a big man with shaved head and pin-stripe suit, he was more pub landlord than diva. His humour came in the form of blokish banter and shouting, yet this earthiness was effective next to Romeo's romantic daydreaming. Thomas Dyer Blake brought a great deal of camp fun to the role of Peter and Chris Nayak was a relatively humourous Benvolio, particularly in the hangover he suffered from after the Capulet's Ball. The Nurse, played by Sue McCormick, was also an entertaining gossip, and her teasing relationship with Juliet was often genuinely touching.

Unfortunately, the weak links in the production were the two young leads, Benedict Fogarty (his debut professional performance) and Sarah Ridgeway. While not exactly bad, both were particularly weak in the first act, Ridgeway's high voice often sticking to one pitch and making her speeches difficult to listen to. Crucially, though, their scenes together lacked spark and passion, and their overtures of love in the balcony scene unfelt. However, they grew considerably better as the performance went on, both being markedly better at the more tragic material in the final acts. Ridgeway was particularly good in the scene where Capulet demands she marry Paris, sobbing under the onslaught and screaming back at her father, while Fogarty was particularly good in his final scenes (for some reason, his sober and ominous scene with Jem Dobbs' Apothecary, simply staged, sent a chill down me). While these moments came too late to rescue the play, it meant the second half very much upped the dramatic stakes and built to a solid conclusion.

The fights, performed on a small raised platform very reminiscent of Nancy Meckler's production, were largely unconvincing. The weapons, long sticks that split in half to turn into a knife, seemed to raise all kinds of exciting possibilities, but the fights were usually limited to a couple of obviously-choreographed swipes and then a close-quarters stabbing (Mercutio's murder was particularly anti-climactic, a quick stab in the shoulder and a very understated set of exit lines). However, the moments in which onlookers drummed ferociously on nearby bins while others brawled got the blood pumping, and Romeo's brutal repeated stabbing of Tybalt's limp body was a genuine shock. Less shocking was the advertised moment of nudity on the lovers' wedding night which, while not completely gratuitous, felt like it was forcing a point about their intimacy that would have been better made by working on the chemistry between the pair.

There was still plenty to enjoy though. Fine Time Fontayne was particularly good as Friar Laurence, an often-aggressive voice of forceful reason who was particularly proactive in engineering the plot, and Chris Hollinshead was a somewhat slimey Paris whose boys-club conversations with Capulet were always entertaining. More generally, the production provided a clear and enjoyable reading of the text. A greater sense of danger in  the fight scenes would have improved the production, but ultimately the whole thing was let down by the absence of love. The title roles of Romeo and Juliet bear the weight of so much of the production, and weak performances here made for an ultimately disappointing experience.

January 19, 2008

Noughts and Crosses @ Stratford–upon–Avon Civic Hall

Creating theatre for teenagers is, I imagine, a very difficult thing. The audience for Noughts and Crosses, the RSC’s second play at the Civic Hall this winter, was made up at least 90% of school groups- talking, whispering, drawing attention to themselves, eating, texting, laughing. Within this kind of audience there is a great deal of cynicism, a determination to look cool in front of one’s peers by mocking the failings or themes of a play, and a need to be unimpressed by this thing that the teachers have dragged them to see. This is of course an enormous generalisation, but it’s very difficult to argue that this feeling doesn’t pervade the auditorium when a teenage audience is in the house. The challenge for theatre companies is how, faced with an audience prepared to be bored, do you engage them?

Dominic Cooke’s adaptation of Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses is squarely targetted at this age group. The story was told from the point of view of two teenagers experiencing love for the first time, trying to make sense of the world. It attempted to balance the important issues that the play raises – racism, intolerance, terrorism, abuse, alcoholism – with a snappy style that would prevent the audience from getting bored or feeling preached at. And it largely succeeded.

Noughts and Crosses poster

Relative newcomer Richard Madden shone in the central role of Callum, the clever white (‘Nought’) boy who has won a controversial place at the local ‘Cross’ school, usually reserved for black children. Blackman’s world is one governed and skewed in favour of black people, with white people restricted to substandard education and jobs. Her point was a simple but effective one, highlighting the issues of racism by reversing the usual stereotypes. Callum’s best friend Sephy was the daughter of the deputy prime minister, and the first half of the play followed their relationship as Callum’s presence at her school caused violence and hatred. Their own latent prejudices were also revealed, Sephy using the unforgivable word “blanca” to describe white people, while Callum’s bitterness at being part of the underclass led to him turning his back on Sephy.

Madden carried the bulk of the play, giving a believable and largely sympathetic (until his later actions) portrayal of a young man with high hopes being gradually broken down by society and prejudice. As Callum’s character grew darker, Madden continued drawing us with him through direct address, convincing in his beliefs if not his actions. This role was shared by Ony Uhiara as Sephy, who was less convincing in the more childlike of the two roles but came into her own in the second act as her high-society family also began to crumble and her innocence was slowly lost. Yet the outcome was left open, leaving us hoping against hope that there would be a happy ending for the two lovers.

The Romeo and Juliet element of the story was unmistakable, but the focus of Cooke’s production was on Callum’s family and the events that tore them apart as Callum’s sister committed suicide and his dad and brother joined an extremist group that led to terrorism. It was in the second act that the story really took off and went to places far darker than one would expect from a teen show. Callum’s growing extremist beliefs led him to reportedly kill many Crosses, and he was genuinely terrifying in the kidnap scene, treating Sephy roughly in prison and seemingly past all help or redemption. His ultimate execution was inevitable, and led a bleakness to this world where actions do have consequences, where lives truly are destroyed, and even the promise of Sephy surviving with his child couldn’t take away from the very sober reality.

Cooke’s production was staged well and informally on a bare floor. A few gimmicks detracted (the starting of scenes with percussive movements from the cast and sudden lighting changes grew tiring), but others worked well. Clarence Smith’s excellent news reporter was particularly good, entering every time a TV was ‘turned on’ and walking round his audience, speaking his reports directly to them before walking off. Set pieces such as an explosion in a shopping centre and the flight of the two lovers through a forest were also handled well, using simple means such as carefully placed prop actors to great effect.

The main frustration of the play was the sheer amount of talking. Cooke fell into the trap of the novel adaptor by having vast portions of action spoken by Sephy or Callum, who narrated the entire play. This became extremely dull after a while, and a more equal balance of narration with inter-character dialogue would have been far more interesting.

The production was solid and certainly seemed to keep the attention of its young audience. It was the second half that impressed though, with the very adult themes of terrorism and torture, rape and abuse, passion and desolation. In this, Cooke correctly realised that teenagers don’t need to be patronised or hidden from the issues which, after all, dominate the news every day, and allowed his audience to follow him from the children’s world of small-scale politics and bullying to the public world of terror and desperate hope. As a play for adults it would have been too simple, but as a play for young adults it hit almost all the right notes.

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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.

The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.

Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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