April 11, 2006, by Peter Kirwan

Romeo & Juliet @ The Royal Shakespeare Theatre

APRIL 11TH 2006 (backdated)

I was always going to be excited about the first show of the Festival, but this promised to be particularly special. The director, Nancy Meckler, debuted with the RSC last year with ‘The Comedy Of Errors’, the funniest production of a Shakespeare play I had ever seen. Physical, fast and hysterical, it got a standing ovation which doesn’t happen often with that play. So, to hear she was tackling R&J was good news, and I hoped she could stay true to form.

There’s good news and bad news about this play. The first bit of bad news is undoubtedly the length. It was three and a half hours long (yet they kept the ‘two hours traffic’ part of the prologue, the liars!), and somewhere in the second act I started to feel it. The good news, however, is that it was fun. It’s not as good as ‘Comedy’, and in that sense I was a bit disappointed, but it was certainly enjoyable.

The major innovation was to set it as a play within a play. We appeared to be witnessing a family picnic between two different clans, who began the play by laying down their weapons in a large blanket before reclining in garden chairs as if on a hot summer day. A raised area in the centre marked out a ‘stage’ in the middle of the event, which became the focus of the action as members of the party got up and began acting out the tragedy while the others watched.

The point of this wasn’t made expicit, however, and critics made a great many guesses: Kate Basset’s review for the Independent guess that, “Maybe this riven community are learning a collective lesson by re-enacting the tragedy”, seems to make sense, but not all the critics were convinced by this way of staging it.

It was a spectacular production, though, with enormous cross-girders dwarfing the set and stylised ‘battles’ that were actually tap-dances with sticks, replacing ‘real’ violence with movement that conjured up the danger and confusion of fighting through rhythm and choreography. In that sense it reminded me of West Side Story’s style of dance-fighting, where the noise and the movement is more important than actually seeing the connecting blows.

More importantly, the play was funny! Rupert Evans, playing Romeo, brought out the comedy of what is essentially teen-angst in his poetry to Juliet, and was sweet in his bumbling and clumsiness. Morven Christie’s Juliet, on the other hand, emphasised her awkwardness in the balcony scene, playing up the contrast between her ideas of how romance ‘should’ happen and what she was actually feeling. Suddenly, Romeo and Juliet became two kids from school who were falling in love for the first time and trying to make sense of what they were feeling, and it became both funny and moving at the same time.

The production for the most part overwhelmed the actors though. Ladders became balconies, worshippers became physical obstructions, sticks became symbols of speech (or giant phalluses if Mercutio was using them), lovers turned into statues and a little girl with bunny ears scarpered about for the entire first Act (most of the debate with my friends afterwards centred around her, with as many different theories to her purpose as there were audience members!). It was these things that stuck in the mind in contrast to the acting, which was good, but not strong enough to be remembered through the innovative and visually impressive production.

Not everyone likes innovation, and one of the problems with ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is that EVERYONE seems to know it. I enjoyed it, though. It’s nice to see a play that’s so over-familiar treated differently, and the design of the production was fantastic. I wish it had had a better critical reception, but I suppose many people expect something more traditional from the RSC. Well, they’ve got the next play for that…..

Posted in Theatre review