April 13, 2008, by Peter Kirwan

Romeo and Juliet (Northern Broadsides) @ Liverpool Playhouse

Perhaps the biggest problem with Romeo and Juliet is that it is so familiar to us. It seems to have formed most people’s introduction to Shakespeare in schools, contains some of the best-known and most-quoted lines in Shakespeare and, of course, was the basis for the most successful (and pervasive) Shakespearean film of recent times, Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo + Juliet. I’ve only actually seen one stage production of the play prior to last night, and yet I feel as if I’ve never stopped watching it. However, watching a live performance, one realises that in actual fact there is much of the play that remains fresh and unfamiliar, and that even a play which has received so much attention is still ripe for interpretation.

Northern Broadsides’ take on the play is the first Shakespearean play I’ve seen them tackle, and it was presented with the same bluff directness and good humour that they brought to Lisa’s Sex Strike last year. Particularly being in a Northern venue, the company’s accents (and modern dress) gave the production a feel of accessibility and immediacy, as if this was something that could be happening just down the road. The easygoing atmosphere meant that this relevance didn’t feel forced, just natural.

Broadsides also know how to make a production fun, particularly in Conrad Nelson’s music. The unquestioned highlight was the Capulet’s Ball, one of the production’s few musical diversions. A five piece band sang an upbeat folk song called More Light!, drawing out Shakespeare’s lines on the party preparation to create an instantly hummable number that underscored the entire scene. The rest of the company clog-danced to the music while a masked Mercutio played a trombone and Barrie Rutter’s MC-like Capulet called for more refrains. The actors clearly enjoyed creating this informal party and it was extremely successful in setting the surroundings for Romeo and Juliet’s wooing. Less fun, but more beautiful, were the handbells that accompanied Paris’ morning song for Juliet, which turned into funereal chiming after her ‘body’ was discovered.

Several of the comic performances were also very enjoyable. Peter Toon was an unusual Mercutio; a big man with shaved head and pin-stripe suit, he was more pub landlord than diva. His humour came in the form of blokish banter and shouting, yet this earthiness was effective next to Romeo’s romantic daydreaming. Thomas Dyer Blake brought a great deal of camp fun to the role of Peter and Chris Nayak was a relatively humourous Benvolio, particularly in the hangover he suffered from after the Capulet’s Ball. The Nurse, played by Sue McCormick, was also an entertaining gossip, and her teasing relationship with Juliet was often genuinely touching.

Unfortunately, the weak links in the production were the two young leads, Benedict Fogarty (his debut professional performance) and Sarah Ridgeway. While not exactly bad, both were particularly weak in the first act, Ridgeway’s high voice often sticking to one pitch and making her speeches difficult to listen to. Crucially, though, their scenes together lacked spark and passion, and their overtures of love in the balcony scene unfelt. However, they grew considerably better as the performance went on, both being markedly better at the more tragic material in the final acts. Ridgeway was particularly good in the scene where Capulet demands she marry Paris, sobbing under the onslaught and screaming back at her father, while Fogarty was particularly good in his final scenes (for some reason, his sober and ominous scene with Jem Dobbs’ Apothecary, simply staged, sent a chill down me). While these moments came too late to rescue the play, it meant the second half very much upped the dramatic stakes and built to a solid conclusion.

The fights, performed on a small raised platform very reminiscent of Nancy Meckler’s production, were largely unconvincing. The weapons, long sticks that split in half to turn into a knife, seemed to raise all kinds of exciting possibilities, but the fights were usually limited to a couple of obviously-choreographed swipes and then a close-quarters stabbing (Mercutio’s murder was particularly anti-climactic, a quick stab in the shoulder and a very understated set of exit lines). However, the moments in which onlookers drummed ferociously on nearby bins while others brawled got the blood pumping, and Romeo’s brutal repeated stabbing of Tybalt’s limp body was a genuine shock. Less shocking was the advertised moment of nudity on the lovers’ wedding night which, while not completely gratuitous, felt like it was forcing a point about their intimacy that would have been better made by working on the chemistry between the pair.

There was still plenty to enjoy though. Fine Time Fontayne was particularly good as Friar Laurence, an often-aggressive voice of forceful reason who was particularly proactive in engineering the plot, and Chris Hollinshead was a somewhat slimey Paris whose boys-club conversations with Capulet were always entertaining. More generally, the production provided a clear and enjoyable reading of the text. A greater sense of danger in  the fight scenes would have improved the production, but ultimately the whole thing was let down by the absence of love. The title roles of Romeo and Juliet bear the weight of so much of the production, and weak performances here made for an ultimately disappointing experience.

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