ROMEO & JULIET/TWELFTH NIGHT
Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 12th and Thursday 13th July, 2017
The Watermill Theatre’s tour of a Shakespeare double bill arrives in Wolverhampton and gets off to a stirring start with a contemporary setting for Romeo & Juliet. Aimed at a YA audience, it appears, this is Verona Hollyoaks-style, where a chorus of hoodie-sporting youths narrate and provide some of the show’s most effective non-naturalistic sequences. A young cast overall, they are headed by Stuart Wilde and Aruhan Galieva as the star-cross’d lovers. What really comes across is the youth of the characters, their exuberance, gaucheness and headlong surrender to violent emotions. This makes the balcony scene awkwardly funny but nonetheless sincere in its outbursts and declarations of love.
Victoria Blunt makes a bold, tomboyish Benvolio while Offue Okegbe is an endearing Mercutio – although I think he could ditch the wetsuit and flippers and still be funny. Peter Dukes is a beefy Tybalt and Rebecca Lee a sympathetic Friar Laurence but it is Lauryn Redding as the Nurse (and also as the Prince who uses a rubber ball as a gavel to punctuate his pronouncements) who shows us how it’s done. Among a strong ensemble, she stands out in terms of conviction and delivery. I also admire Capulet (Jamie Satterthwaite) and his cheesy dad speech.
Director Paul Hart interlaces scenes with up-to-date musical numbers performed live by the cast. This is at its most effective as a soundtrack underscoring key moments, e.g. a Movement sequence at R and J’s wedding brings the first half to a close with a preview of what is to come. The style is very much influenced by Emma Rice’s work with Kneehigh – and this is in no way a bad thing, making the action accessible and the emotions plain. On the whole, the cast handle the verse expertly – apart from the off moments when they’re rushing it. A sophisticated and engaging production, brimming with youthful energy.
Back again the following evening for the bittersweet rom-com, Twelfth Night. This Illyria has a 1920s vibes to it and the music is vibrant and jazzy – some of the songs used are anachronistic but this doesn’t matter in the slightest. Effective use of Tears For Fears’ Mad World, for example, and again I am struck by the musical and vocal abilities of the cast. Rebecca Lee is the cross-dressing Viola – this is a world in which genders are bent and no one bats an eye: Sir Toby Belch (Lauryn Redding being marvellous again) is such a figure, referred to as a ‘she’ but dressed like a man (with conduct to match) and the honorific ‘Sir’. No wonder Viola is able to get away with it. Jamie Satterthwaite is a suitably self-indulgent Orsino, while Aruhan Galieva’s regal Olivia soon shows us the love-struck young lady behind the veil. Offue Okegbe’ s easy-going Feste and Mike Slader’s prattish Sir Andrew Aguecheek add to the pervading comic mood; Victoria Blunt’s cunning Maria and Emma McDonald’s earnest Antonia keep the plot moving with conviction. There is always a melancholic air to this play, as though people are trying to distract themselves with practical jokes, music, and the folly of love (and, of course, drink!). Paul Hart’s direction keeps the party atmosphere going without neglecting the undercurrent – people are hurt by these ‘distractions’, none less than Peter Dukes’s show-stealing Malvolio who transforms from a stuffy butler type to a kind of ‘sweet transvestite’ in yellow stockings and feather boa, to a broken, humiliated man, bent on revenge. It’s a delight of a show, like bitter chocolate, reminding us that Shakespeare can still push our buttons to make us laugh and to make us empathise with our fellow humans. The downbeat happy ending is here enlivened by a jazzed-up rendition of Hey-ho, the Wind and the Rain. In fact, Ned Rudkins-Stow’s arrangement of the play’s songs are all well done, from O, Mistress Mine to Hold Thy Peace, Thou Knave. Shakespeare wasn’t half bad as a lyricist either, it turns out!
A thoroughly enjoyable pairing – you should catch at least one if you can.