Gill Sutherland reviews Romeo and Juliet at Royal Shakespeare Theatre, until 21st September
As I currently inhabit a house full of teenagers I can fully attest to the veracity of this absolutely brilliant production of Romeo and Juliet, directed by RSC deputy artistic director Erica Whyman.
Young love is agony, an awful business really; one of the worst aspects is to have your heartfelt emotions dismissed by disbelieving adults. What this production totally nails is that essence of youthful love as it struggles for survival in a hostile environment ruled by adults armed with knives and fixated on hate.
It opens with a skirmishing crowd of teenagers clad in modern streetwear… they recite the choral prologue — “Two households, both alike in dignity…” — clamouring on top of each other, as if you are plugged into ten different mobile phone conversations. As it happens four of the chorus from each show are made up of Warwickshire teenage school pupils, and after a minute or so you can pick them out from the professional cast. But the stamp of the teens leaves a mark on the production, and never for a moment going forward do you forget that this is a story about the new generation and the purity and passion of lovesick youth.
Bally Gill plays a blinder as laddish, handsome Romeo, who he endows with the gait and swagger of an urban youth, and such light and shade that you laugh readily at his quips and mannerisms and have no problem with believability when he turns murderous and suicidal.
His charm is no less matched by Karen Fishwick’s Juliet; she radiates inner beauty (and outer) and perfectly captures the limbo between child and woman without gimmick, and delivers her verse with delicious Scottish brogue and fresh fire.
From the get-go you root for the star-crossed lovers, and as their tragic plot unfolds you will the 421-year-old play to have a different ending… they give the story such thrills it is like hearing it for the first time. Yup, that good.
Each character in the play seems furnished with fresh psychological depths. Juliet’s pa and ma give their daughter’s circumstance real logic as Capulet is portrayed by Michael Hodgson as a patriarchal bully and physical abuser; and Mariam Haque gives Lady Capulet a hesitant nervousness, clearly quelled by the abuse, but still with a flash of occasional steel. Josh Finan plays Benvolio with often comic nuance as his sexual desire for his best friend Romeo goes unrealised. The biggest laughs are reaped by Ishia Bennison’s nurse — she is a soulful presence blessed with the comic everywoman approach of Julie Walters. Yup, that good.
A shout out must also go to Andrew French as Friar Laurence who gives a steady stately heart to the production, and delivered his lines beautifully. And last but not least the most out-there performance of the evening goes to Charlotte Josephine as Mercutio. She’s a street-fighting girl clearly out to impress her gang of teenage lad mates… she’s a live-wire, clowning, jesting, smutty joker, shadow boxing, knife-flasher and perpetually up-for-a-fight bonkers person. Her ‘Queen Mab’ speech in Act One is so perfectly demented, that when Romeo wades in to stop her with a light-hearted “You’re talking nonsense!” it reminded me of Robert De Niro defusing Jose Pesci in Goodfellas. Yup, that good.
Much has been said about of the gender fluidness of the cast; to be honest you simply wouldn’t notice or mind unless you are a picky purist.
The modern approach to this production gives it a wonderful universality. Verona could be any city rife with virulent knife crime and warring factions. The set design by Tom Piper underlines this ‘anywhere, anytime’ approach. Consisting mainly of a portable staircase and large concrete box/bunker — the grey drabness of the two main items means they are endlessly flexible. For example they are put to particularly good creative use during Capulet’s party in Act One. Romeo and his mates gatecrash the throng via the swinging staircase, sussing out the scene as they look down from their vantage point before donning masks and immersing themselves in the thick of the right rocking rave (Sophie Cotton’s excellent score goes from riffs, to rave, to serene strings…) in front of the concrete box which is now a fairylight-festooned bar.
Later in the play that happy box becomes the unhappy tomb where the misled lovers take their lives. A haunting scene that ends with them briefly rising up in death under the stars that blessed their first kiss and that now twinkle yet more poignantly in the backdrop. This tragedy has never felt so real or quite so beautiful.