From gangs and knife crime, to domestic violence, bad parenting and teenage rebellion, Romeo and Juliet holds a mirror up to problems that all too frequently play out across the front pages of modern newspapers. Erica Whyman’s production not only engages with these themes, it revels in them, building on the darkness in the play to create an atmosphere that is perpetually on a knife’s edge; violent and dangerous, the stark, dark set is lit only by the flash of knife blades and tempers.
Speeches shoot out at speed in rap rhythms, or are shouted at top volume; the Capulet party plays out against a backdrop of loud rock music and the blood stained victims of knife crime haunt the stage after their death. Anyone who has come to see a gentle love story is in for a shock.
Whyman set out to experiment with the text and her inner-city Verona is admirably tense and discomfiting, but can become tiring. Her production tends to shout its messages rather than speaking them, sometimes sacrificing clarity for volume. It is all about anger and violence, and we lose sight of the play’s other, more subtle themes of family, loyalty, fate and choice. The play loses clarity.
The Capulet household becomes a place of domestic violence, with its angry, domineering patron and his brittle, damaged wife. Enjoyable as the performances of Michael Hodgson and Miriam Haque are here, it renders Juliet’s indecision incomprehensible: why would she agonise about leaving behind such an awful family life? It also, unwittingly, pushes the Montague house into the role of ‘good guys’. While Capulet rages, Montague is quiet. He will not allow violence at his party and dies of sorrow at Romeo’s exile. Tybalt is forced to become the ‘bad-guy’; a lone operator whose actions go against Montague’s instructions. Without understanding the importance of honour and family, Raphael Sowole’s Tybalt comes across as peevish and selfish. It suggests that the problems in Verona could be solved quite easily, if Prince Escalus simply banished the bad guys.
Whyman’s production also experiments with roles, using a diverse cast to create a multi-cultural and gender fluid Verona. Some of the experiments work better than others. Charlotte Josephine’s sinuous and exuberant Mercutio is enjoyable but confusing: she is a manly woman, almost too manly at times. It would have been interesting to feminise the character more, showing that violence is not the preserve of only one gender. Beth Cordingly’s calm nobility and outfit are evocative of Jodie Whittaker’s Dr Who, giving her excellent Prince Escalus a persuasive clarity of purpose and authority.
Against the backdrop of noise and violence, the beautiful voice of Andrew French’s Friar Lawrence stands out like a beacon of stability and hope, offering a nicely ironic touch to the performance, as his choices, more than any other character’s, shape the tragedy within the play. Ishia Bennison is a hilarious nurse, more Mrs Overall on crack than mother figure, and Karen Fiswick’s Juliet is intelligent and engaging, but the outstanding performance in the play belongs to Romeo. Bally Gill’s Romeo is young, endearing and charismatic. Gill brings a light and humorous touch to the character, offering a welcome contrast between young hope and the darkness of life in Verona.
Romeo and Juliet is a staple of the GCSE circuit. Its contemporary references and tale of young love are seen as suitable fodder for introducing Shakespeare to the school curriculum and Whyman’s production has clearly been created with this young audience in mind. Her Romeo and Juliet is pacy, noisy and thought-provoking. It conjures up discussion points faster than a GSCE English teacher can scribble down notes and, if the enthusiastic responses of the night’s visiting school group can be relied on, it certainly hit the target. It is an interesting introduction to Shakespeare but perhaps not one for the purist.
Chiara Strazzulla review:
Until March 6.