ROMEO AND JULIET
Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 3rd November, 2018
Andrew Cowie’s stripped-back but classy production begins with a fracas in a restaurant, when an obscene gesture from a waiter provokes an outburst. The action freezes and the Chorus (Pat Dixon) delivers the famous prologue, which sketches out the entire plot. Dixon instantly becomes the Prince of Verona, chastising the rebellious citizens and promising capital punishment to all those who further disturb the peace. Dixon is authoritative, no-nonsense, but we haven’t really got the sense of the blood feud between the two families. A couple of incidents of table-flipping hardly seem worthy of a death sentence.
The familiar story plays out on an almost empty stage – a couple of flats provide wings; there’s a chair – but Cowie’s bold ideas provide a fresh approach, and many of them work very well. When someone is killed, red petals tumble from above like snowflakes, marring the pristine set. The petals remain in place, because the violence colours everything else that follows…
Samuel Wilson is a handsome and likeable Romeo, who warms up considerably after his character stops mooning around after Rosaline. His scenes with Fi Cotton’s gender-swapped Friar Laurence are among his strongest. Laurence here is some kind of ordained wise-woman, toting a trug of herbal remedies to complement her ecclesiastical offices. She is the parent-figure Romeo lacks and Cotton’s confession scene at the play’s climax is heart-rendingly emotional.
Also gender-swapped, in a genius move, is the Nurse, played by Alan K Marshall as a sensitive, slightly camp, family retainer. It works brilliantly, for humorous and for emotional purposes, and Marshall is superb in the part. Holly Prescott’s Mercutio is a party girl and an energetic presence, but there is no need to overemphasise every sexual innuendo unearthed in the text. It’s enough to lean on the words with a cheeky look, I find, rather than going all Kinga from Big Brother with a bottle. Joanne Brookes’s Benvolio’s best moment comes when she’s telling the police what happened to Tybalt.
Joe Palmer makes an impression as the hothead Tybalt, but Romeo makes quick work of despatching him – not only does the script have more cuts than a Tory government, the moments of action are underdone. Also impressive is Thomas Baldachin as comedy servant Peter, tackling a risky bit of audience involvement with aplomb.
Simon King is at ease with his power as Lord Capulet; his denouncing of Juliet’s reluctance to marry the man he has chosen for her is a highlight of the performance, demonstrating that if you let the script have its head, old Willy’s words still have the power to move no matter how many times you’ve heard them. As for Juliet herself, the excellent Charlotte Upton delivers a striking performance, handling the verse with assurance and emotional intelligence.
The clean, sometimes stark lighting by Kenny Holmes and Molly Wood, coupled with the chic costumes by Dewi Johnson, add to the fashion shoot aspects of the production design. In the second half, the lighting slashes strips across the stage, suggesting rooms or corridors in the Capulet mansion for example, but also casting the characters into strong relief, showing how simple, sparing use of tech can be atmospheric and support the drama. The costumes suggest Italian couture and La Dolce Vita – until Romeo and his mates rock up to the ball sporting superhero costumes, presumably so he can scale the walls to see Juliet, for stony limits cannot keep Spider-Man out!
Cowie keeps the theatricality of the piece at the forefront of our experience. At first, the bright white setting has the clinical coldness of a photoshoot, but then again, Shakespeare used nothing in the way of representational scenery either, letting his words do the job instead. Where this production falls short is when moments aren’t allowed to breathe: there is humour, inventiveness and emotional power, but it rattles along without building up a sense of danger. I don’t think the ‘two hours traffic of our stage’ is meant to be taken literally. This show could benefit from another quarter of an hour.
Stylish, sophisticated and surprising, overall this is an enjoyable imagining of the famous tragedy.