Any show which opens with you unsure of whether you’re watching Romeo and Juliet, or you have stumbled into a Mumford and Sons gig by accident is always going to be an interesting adaptation!
The show opens with this troupe of strolling players literally strolling through the audience, strumming their guitars and wearing identical outfits: white flannel tops, suspenders and adorned in tattoos. Half hipster, half folk singer vibe, aka Mumford and Sons, or The Lumineers. And after this jolly good sing song, Dominic Dromgoole and Tim Hoare waste no time in establishing that they’re doing a fresh take on this classic, by playing around with pacing in this production.
As the infamous prologue begins, it is interspersed with dialogue from the first scene, which is equally infamous to those of you who watched Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet at GCSE, aka the vehement, ‘DO YOU BITE YOUR THUMB AT US, sir’ scene. I was somewhat unsure about this approach initially, but the overlaying of scenes actually works well throughout, particularly with the juxtaposition of Act II, scene VI and Act III, scene I, respectively Romeo and Juliet meeting with Friar Lawrence to marry, and the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt (spoiler, I guess for a 400 year old play). One issue I had with the pacing though is the point at which they’ve put the interval. Here, Act III, scene I marks the end of the first half, but most other productions pause before this, with the marriage of Romeo and Juliet. This means the audience’s attention is immediately drawn as the second half starts with the duel between Tybalt and Mercutio, whereas in this production we return to a very heavy dialogue scene, with some audience members not seeming to pay particular attention and still talking amongst themselves.
Another merit of this production is that it feels very stripped back and effortless, particularly in its approach to costumes and staging. As this is a touring version, there are only 8 members of the cast, who double up as other characters: Benvolio/Friar Lawrence, Mercutio/the Prince, and Tybalt/Paris/Lord Montague. In addition to their having identical outfits, the doubling of characters as both Montagues and Capulets reinforces that, despite their differences, these families are very similar, indeed ‘both like alike in dignity’. Character changes are marked by the addition of an item of clothing: an audience knows that Steffan Donnelly is no longer Mercutio because he’s changed from a flamboyant Hawaiian shirt to the Prince’s regal cloak, and also more obviously because Mercutio died in the previous scene! Similarly, the staging is not overly complicated: the only addition to the stage is an extended balcony, which is used for (obviously) the balcony scene and also to signify two levels in the final tomb scene, and props are used sparingly too, with Juliet’s death bed just a plank of wood and two stands.
With this small group of actors, everyone gets their chance to shine, and there is truly no weak link in this production. The relationship between Cassie Layton’s Juliet and the aptly named Samuel Valentine’s Romeo is wholly believable: the adoration with which each regards the other is entrancing, with Romeo hardly able to keep his eyes off her from their first to final scenes, truly making you believe that he ‘ne’er saw true beauty till this night’. Matt Doherty, Steffan Donnelly and Tom Kanji pull double duty, playing multiple characters throughout, and inevitably one of their characters shines above the others. Doherty’s choleric and powerful Tybalt overpowers his Paris, although his minor turn as the Capulet’s servant is memorable. Donnelly’s Mercutio again outweighs his Prince, and while he is not the best Mercutio I have seen, the fluidity of his movement is surprisingly elegant and his voice control is insane (seriously, I couldn’t stop looking at his diaphragm…although that may also have to do with the fact he was topless)! Kanji’s Friar Lawrence is likable and sympathetic, and better than his Benvolio, although I am somewhat biased with this. I am yet to find anyone who has played Benvolio convincingly and in a way which I find either fits with my impression of the character, or puts a different take on him.
Finally, Sarah Higgins’ Nurse is as hilarious as Shakespeare intended and her dynamic with Hannah McPake’s Lady Capulet is great. A little bit of work may be needed on pausing for laughs, but other than that both do a stellar job, particularly Lady Capulet in her expression of grief. But Steven Elder’s Lord Capulet is the stand out performance for me: I don’t think I exhaled once during the scene in which he orders Juliet to marry Paris, so commanding was Elder’s performance. In this one scene, you see how the Capulet family has been torn apart by the death of Tybalt, a grief not normally acknowledged or felt by the audience in other productions. And you feel sympathy for Capulet, even in his rages, because of just how wholly and believably grief-stricken Elder’s Capulet is. At the end of the scene, I didn’t know whether to boo, cry, or applaud.
A surprising, modern and fresh take on Romeo and Juliet, and one which I would definitely recommend seeing, because honestly never was there a story of more woah, than this of Juliet and her Romeo (awful pun, apologies)!
Romeo and Juliet is playing at Shakespeare’s Globe from the 27th April to the 8th May, then touring around the country. See the website for where it may be playing close to you.