Romeo and Juliet is notoriously difficult to stage. Being probably the most famous play of all time puts pressure on to produce something that is at least a smidge original and yet not so much that it loses the text is the swamps of contemporary adaptation. In the RSC’s touring production directed by Erica Whyman, the tragic tale of the two star-crossed lovers has an unspecified but contemporary setting, kitted out in jeans and leather jackets and staged around a large swiveling cube.
The first thing that captures your attention is how young the cast is, or at least how young they all appear to be. Whyman’s direction restores some much-needed adolescence to the story through the hormonal, adrenaline-driven aggression between the houses of Capulet and Montague and the rash nativity of the two young lovers (though rest assured that Juliet is not at such a young age as in the original play). As such, the show isn’t afraid to be swept up in the boyish joy of the Montagues’ preparing to crash the Capulet’s party, nor to laugh at Romeo’s achingly overwrought poetry.
Bally Gill’s performance as Romeo is the highlight of the show. From the moment he enters the stage, hood pulled up with the elastic pulled so as to only show his pouting mouth before gleefully revealing his face to greet Benvolio (Josh Finan), you get a sense of his bold yet lovable character. When the stakes are raised, Gill portrays the overriding passion that makes every crazed action believable. Juliet, played by Karen Fishwick, also gives a strong performance. Upon learning that Romeo has killed her cousin, her distress and horror at her torn loyalties shifts the tone of the whole play, and her starry-eyed adoration of Romeo is reminiscent of the teenage awkwardness of discovering love.
Aside from the central couple, the quality of the performances is quite uneven. While the young ensemble definitely deserve props for their performances and choreography, a few of the central performances are questionable, most notably Charlotte Josephine as Mercutio. Her movements are as constant as if she had ants under her skin. Though the movements are very sharp it becomes exhaustingly energetic, and that energy becomes a crutch for the rushed dialogue. Raphael Sowole suffers from the opposite problem as Tybalt, as he lacks the threatening edge necessary for the Prince of Cats.
Like the acting, the directing and staging has its ups and down as well. The first scene is a mess, both visually and narratively, but other iconic scenes like the balcony scene and the party scene are visually rich. The latter in particular is creatively handled, with the revellers bathed in turquoise and dancing in slow motion while Romeo delivers his love-struck monologue. The show may be a mixed bag in places, but Fishwick and Gill’s performances make it a worthy revival. Three stars.
Whispers from the crowd:
“I really liked Romeo and Juliet, I thought the young cast were much stronger. The older cast were much shoutier, but the Friar (Andrew French) was excellent. I also loved the production value”