Romeo & Juliet
With a story as familiar and regularly performed as Romeo and Juliet, is it still possible to do something fresh and new? Daniel Kramer has proven it is with his noisy and energetic production at The Globe and, while some of the subtleties might be lost in the din, it is bursting with spectacle and invention and the interactive fun that the open-air theatre does so well.
Scholars have often commented on how Romeo and Juliet’s first half has more of the structure of comedy than the tragedy to come. As is often the case at The Globe, every opportunity is taken to find laughs in the story of two feuding families and their love-struck teenagers. The cast are dressed for a wild fancy dress party with their faces painted in clown make-up like a circus troupe but with a darker edge reminiscent of alternative cabaret and “gypsy” band The Tiger Lillies. The big party where the two youngsters meet opens with a crowd-pleasing rendition of The Village People’s YMCA, danced and sung by most of the cast led by Juliet’s dad, Lord Capulet, in a dinosaur costume.
Despite the laughter, the tragedy is foreshadowed, most notably by the recurrent motif of babies’ coffins as well as the black shrouds and what appears to be an airborne bomb hanging overhead on Soutra Gilmour’s otherwise spare set. The first big emotional punch comes when Romeo and Juliet finally meet, movingly soundtracked by the perfectly chosen Dinah Washington song This Bitter Earth, which proclaims that life is “like the dust” without love.
The tone quickly shifts with the deaths of Romeo’s friend Mercutio and Juliet’s cousin Tybalt which, switching simultaneously between scenes, are integrated with the young couple’s marriage and then Juliet awaiting Romeo’s arrival in the marriage bed. This is part of the energetic pace of the production that rarely lets up, sometimes distracting from Shakespeare’s text, although there are quieter moments, particularly the moving, more intimate scenes between the two lovers.
Despite the two lead actors being old enough to have teenage children of their own, Edward Hogg and Kirsty Bushell superbly embody the moodiness and nervous intensity of their young characters. Romeo starts off as more of a petulant emo youth, headphones clamped to his head, while Juliet eagerly longs for love and an escape from her dominating parents. The choice of actors in their late 30s makes more sense in the second half when the teens are seen to swiftly grow up and become adults as they face their tragic ending, gaining more maturity and insight than their warring parents.
As Lord Capulet, Gareth Snook is suitably despotic, bordering on violence, towards his family, while Martina Laird is strangely pitiable as his capricious alcoholic wife. Ricky Champ’s Tybalt is a bulldog-like bully who exudes menace beneath his clowning. He also oddly doubles up as Capulet’s dog – dressed in a full dog costume – challenging Tybalt’s conventional association with cats. Other stand-out performances include Blythe Duff who is excellent as the Nurse, with a clipped Scottish delivery that manages to extract every ounce of sharpness and comedy out of her lines. Jonathan Livingstone is also good as a likeable Benvolio, spending part of the time bouncing around in a Goofy costume.
With so much going on, the fact that Mercutio is played not only by a woman but as a female character has caused little debate in contrast to Tamsin Greig’s Malvolia in Twelfth Night at the National. It adds another dimension to the friendship with Romeo, suggesting her affection borders on romantic love, and perhaps highlights that gender changing in Shakespeare is already becoming less remarkable. Golda Rosheuvel plays her as a bold tomboy who is not afraid to express her sexuality, and her refusal initially to admit she has been fatally wounded by Tybalt makes her death all the more moving. Rosheuvel also presides over the closing scene, leading the cast in a haunting rendition of Sinéad O’Connor’s In This Heart that ensures there isn’t a dry eye in the house.
With regular bursts of rock and house music and the in-your-face staging, the show feels at times like a rock opera, with support from musical director Laura Moody, music producer Ben de Vries and sound designer Paul Groothuis. Kramer has made a few odd choices such as replacing the poison and swords with toy guns that require the actor to say “bang” like children playing games which adds a jarring comic note to what would normally be sad. But overall, Kramer and the cast deserve praise for taking a well-trod story and giving it a fresh, interesting and exciting new slant.
Running to July 9, 2017