The RSC production of Romeo and Juliet which is currently playing in its Stratford-Upon-Avon base and which will transfer to the Roundhouse in Camden, London later in the year is a golden opportunity to see one of the finest productions of Shakespeare in many a year.
The heart of what is good and best about the production is located in the pairing of Sam Troughton and Mariah Gale who are cast as the star-cross’d lovers.
Troughton is all passion as he makes Romeo believably self-destructive. The pain of Romeo’s experiences and his joy in Juliet are written on this actor’s face throughout the performance. We believe that here is a man who can be in love with Rosaline at the beginning of the play but who can also fall headlong in love with Juliet at first sight and mean both emotions. This is a titanic feat of acting ability.
Mariah Gale has the courage (no small thing in the modern environment) to make Juliet believably fourteen. She is girlish in the extreme but also makes us believe that a 14-year old can love with this depth – not because this is in accord with modern wisdom but because this is was part of Shakespeare’s worldview.
And this is the heart of all that is good about this production, it enters into Shakespeare’s mindset and captures the characters that he created and gives real life to the words that he wrote – not content to leave them as mere words, words on the dusty old page but make them alive and contemporaneous to our situation and to the world of the Capulets and the Montagues.
It is presumably for this reason that Rupert Goold has made this a mixed production when it comes to costume. The Capulet and Montague families and their circle are dressed in the costumes of the era of the 1st Elizabeth. Romeo and Juliet alone of those who appear on the stage in the bulk of the play are in the manner of the later period of the 2nd Elizabeth – indeed, the 21st Century . Troughton’s Romeo dresses in hoodie and jeans and enters the first scene carrying a camera. His concerns are the concerns of our world as well as the century in which is character “lived” whereas the secondary characters’ concerns are from their 16th century era alone. When the Capulets and Montague passed from this world, their feud passed with them. And it is for this reason that the entire cast is dressed in the style of the 21st century when they return to the stage to mark the death of two teenagers – for it is not only impassioned love that is timeless.
The performance is not without its minor flaws. Jonjo O’Neill’s Mercutio is directed in a way that does not arise believably from Shakespeare’s play – a fact best illustrated by the way much of his humour arises from pantomime because it cannot be found in the character who is found in the text the actors have to work with. But the problem is with the direction not the actor. O’Neill plays this Mercutio with all of his heart and in many ways he is justifiably a favourite of the audience but he is Goold’s Mercutio not Shakespeare’s.
The rest of the cast play their roles in a way which ranges from competent one moment to captivating the next. No-one falls below that standard. The set design is simple, meaningful, attractive and beautiful. So in this Romeo and Juliet all is good but it is the destroyed innocence that we beheld in Ms. Gale’s Juliet at the outset and which lies dead at the conclusion, and the shared passion between her and Mr Troughton’s Romeo which wreaked such an end, which will be long remembered when we have left the theatre.