On Friday, I was in Stratford-Upon-Avon, once more, for the Royal Shakespeare company’s latest production of Romeo and Juliet. It has been an interesting year for the RSC with receipts up because of David Tennant’s involvement in Hamlet and Love’s Labour’s lost but some mixed reviews and varying quality and conceptualisation of productions.
Neil Bartlett directed the RSC’s production of “Twelfth Night” in 2007 which succeeded primarily because of a superlative perfomance by John Lithgow as Malvolio. There he played with cross-gender casting to less success – making some casting decisions which The Guardian’s Michael Billington described as “daft”. Here in Romeo and Juliet we have a camp Mercutio for no apparent reason, delivered by Gyuri Sarossy who is good despite rather than because of that effeminacy and a heavy accent placed on the patriarchal roles of Lords Capulet and Montague which rather over-shadows the passion of the “star-crossed” lovers. Bartlett places the emphasis on patriarchal politicking rather than on the passion which is the more obvious theme of the script. Sometimes he hits a bullseye but more often his arrow falls well short of his target.
Strangely, one of this production’s strengths also becomes one of its greatest weaknesses. The development of the opening scene into a all-out choregraphed fight scene between the Capulets and Montagues will be a little too West Side Story for some tastes but its use of flick-knives is certainly startling in the current social environment. The costumes are 1930s Italian-American and evoke a feel of the Godfather and Capone. This helps the play maintain its Italianness and gives a reason for the choice of props which stands up better than some adaptations of Shakespeare into contemporary dress.
After the first scene though the cast are now stuck with their flick-knives and suits and Bartlett makes very little use of them in the rest of the play. They become pointless after their sharp introduction. The Italian flavour is lost in a morass of varying accents. Lord Capulet seems vaguely Jewish and might have seen better use as a Venetian money-lender. Eva Magyar as Lady Capulet sounds still too Eastern European. Juliet LeGrand as the Nurse seems to have just stepped off the set of “Eastenders”. Only Mark Ross as Lord Monague remains an Italian thug until the bitter end and he does it well and believably which is more than can be said of some of the cast.
When this production of the play was being performed outside of Stratford for a month or more prior to its debut at the Courtyard, it received some very unkind and withering reviews indeed. One said it was the worst production of Romeo and Juliet imaginable. Either the cast and director have learnt lessons from those reviews or it never deserved them. Indeed, the production and in particular the cast has many strengths. James Clyde as Friar Laurence is simply outstanding – caught between his duty to the family, his loyalty to his friend, Romeo and his devotion to his God, he is angst and ingenuity personified. Daniel Percival is a fetching Benvolio and Owain Arthur handles most of his work wonderfully as the Capulet’s servant, Peter. His humour is rich and his bewilderment believable. He does however lose his way a little in his final scene as he leads the musicians in song which is handled a little too farcically.
We need to note in passing that the music is a little too dark in other scenes where the choice of instruments does not quite work.
The undoing of this production, perhaps lies in the lack of experience of the younger members of the cast which includes the two eponymous characters. Where “Twelfth Night” was ladened with seasoned veterans, “Romeo and Juliet” perhaps has too many actors making either their RSC debut or (in once case) a professional acting debut. This coupled with the unorthodox direction chosen by Mr Bartlett is perhaps too much for the younger actors to carry. The apparent leads of Anneika Rose as Juliet and David Dawson as Romeo are delivered with too narrow an emotional repertoire. Dawson seems to be crying in most of his scenes (I do wonder whether he had a heavy cold) and Juliet is just a little too shrill at times.
So a production that is not as bad as some have said but not as good as the play it presents deserves. 2008 has been an interesting year for the RSC and it will have many lessons to learn from for its 2009 productions – not only in marketing, development of theatres and ticket sales but in some of its choices on stage too.
Juliet (Anneika Rose, on the right) and her Nurse (Julie Legrand)
Prior to that I will be taking a look at the London transfer of Hamlet in a week or so. Review will be here as usual.