December 8, 2008, by Peter Kirwan

Romeo and Juliet (RSC) @ The Courtyard Theatre

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I’m not going to beat around the bush with this review. The RSC’s new production of Romeo and Juliet is one of the worst productions of Shakespeare I’ve ever had the misfortune to sit through.

As hard as I tried to find some positive aspects to the production, I honestly couldn’t find anything to redeem it. A Godfather-influenced aesthetic (trumpet/accordion soundtrack, suits and flick-knives, dynastical feuds) was a nice idea, if obvious, but added little to the production. A beautiful stage set for the final crypt scene (played in near darkness, lit with torch light against dry ice) was atmospheric, but was the first bit of visual interest in a 3-and-a-quarter hour production. I can’t even claim that the production was mercifully short – it was slow, long and dreary.

The most negative aspects came in the performances. To be fair, the vast majority of the cast were new to the RSC and many were relatively early in their professional careers. This will always be the downfall of Romeo and Juliet– casting actors who are simply not strong enough for the demanding material. Anneika Rose was particularly awful as Juliet: frankly, I felt sorry for her. From the boring (she spent a ridiculous amount of time acting while sitting on a bed, including the balcony scene) to the appalling (even a little amount of distress at seeing your husband dead?!), her scenes simply never worked. David Dawson as Romeo was a little better, but the balcony scene, staged with just a bed centrestage and therefore putting all focus on the performances, was slow, long and entirely without feeling. This was Shakespeare just spoken (and spoken not well), not performed.

The comic scenes were almost entirely without humour, despite the efforts of Owain Arthur’s Peter. The play’s length was in part occasioned by the retaining of even minor moments such as Peter’s conversation with the musicians – here, with no discernable purpose or merit. I had more time for Gyuri Sarossy’s Mercutio who, while not doing anything hugely interesting or memorable with the role, at least brought some welcome energy to the production, sorely lacking elsewhere.

Even the fight scenes were poorly realised. Director Neil Bartlett used some self-consciously dramatic devices which not only had no impact, but worked against the action by interrupting it and reducing the pace to a crawl. The play opened with the cast assembling and looking pointedly around at the audience (are we meant to identify or feel responsible for this mafia-like world of rich kids, nobles and cantankerous patriarchs? A device better reserved for a socially-deprived setting), before beginning the fight. Bartlett used a stop-start approach which saw the action repeatedly frozen while bits of dialogue were performed, before the physical action was restarted. Any sense of momentum was repeatedly arrested, making this introductory scene far too long and dull to be of any interest. Another device used frequently during the first half of the play saw members of the cast click their fingers at the ceiling to change lights and begin new scenes, which demonstrated little other than that Bartlett had seen The Glass Menagerie. Happily, most of these devices were forgotten during the course of the play, which was welcome and also flagged up the irrelevance of their earlier inclusion.

Even among smaller parts, the acting was repeatedly disappointing. Ben Ashton’s Paris, upon being confronted with his ‘dead’ bride-to-be, exhibited….. mild irritation. Eva Magyar’s Lady Capulet went for full histrionics, while Julie Legrand’s Nurse, best described as a cross between Dot Cotton and Lily Savage, grated rather than amused. Mark Holgate at least conjured up a visage of Italianate menace as Tybalt, but the less said about James G. Bellorini’s bumbling Friar John and Craig Ritchie’s wooden Apothecary the better. Even James Clyde, the actor with the wonderful voice who was the towering highlight of Bartlett’s Twelfth Night, overacted wildly as Friar Laurence, as if he was Mercutio doing the Queen Mab speech.

I’m aware that this is an ungenerous and rather forceful review, and I feel slightly bad as I write it. I’m sure that many of those involved had worked hard, even if that work didn’t translate to my audience experience on the night. At the same time, though, I feel it’s crucially important that the RSC not produce work of this sub-amateur standard. Northern Broadsides and Shakespeare’s Globe have both produced Romeos this year that, while far from perfect, at least brought energy and freshness to one of the most recognisable plays on the English stage. This production added nothing to the play for those of us familiar with it, and did little to recommend itself to first-timers. We were sat among a group of schoolkids who spent most of the production texting, chatting among themselves and generally ignoring the play, and I couldn’t blame them one bit; if this play had been my introduction to Shakespeare as a teenager, I can’t imagine I would have bothered again. If the RSC wants to reach out and change the face of Shakespeare eduction, it needs to have good productions at the heart of its strategy, or the good work of its outreach will be undone.

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