Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Archive Review • ROMEO AND JULIET • RSC @ Albery Theatre • 2004

Albery Theatre, St. Martin's Lane, London. From a postcard circa 1905. [Wikimedia]

Albery Theatre, St. Martin’s Lane, London. From a postcard circa 1905. [Wikimedia]

Designer Simon Daw has provided a simple cream-coloured box for Peter Gill’s production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. He has decorated its flaking stucco walls with fragmented blue images of Italian buildings, like French eighteenth century wallpaper, and in the same way it becomes a decorative background of architecture above a cream paved stagecloth.

Centre stage, Daw places a doorway with a balcony — a piece of Veronese palazzo — the one essential architectural element of the plot which also indicates enclosed scenes and open ones. This serves the action well, enabling it to be fast-moving, though I felt the few pieces of furniture appearing for some scenes amid a flurry of movement could have been dispensed with. Only in the final tomb scene is there some problem when, despite the ingenuity of the staging (which offers one possible 16th-century solution to the opening of the tomb), its imaginary spaces lacked credibility.

Deidre Clancy’s costume designs with their laced codpieces, red caps and wreath-like hats, look as though they come straight out of cinquecento paintings. No modern gimmicks here: this is a production that should please traditionalists and it may well serve for those who come new to the play, uncertain of what happens. But where is that sense of lived-life and identification that we have come to expect from this director?

An admirer of Gill’s work as writer and director since his earliest days at the Royal Court, I wonder what has stopped him from drawing the kind of performances from this cast that he usually produces. Not that the production doesn’t have its moments. In the parental grief at Juliet’s apparent death I felt genuinely moved, and David Hargreaves’ Capulet establishes a special feeling for his daughter. Never before have I so clearly appreciated that she is his only remaining child after several sibling deaths and how much hope is invested in her. His rage when she turns down marriage to Count Paris has a hint of Lear and made me wonder what real life besotted father Shakespeare drew on when he created them. I don’t think I had ever appreciated before that Old Montague (Sion Tudor Owen) has become a widower just hours before his son is discovered dead. Indeed, it is the older generation who are the strongest feature of this production with Emily Raymond’s Lady Capulet and June Watson’s Scots Nurse, though Watson does occasionally draw out her speeches to the extent that we, like her employers, begin to find her tedious without seeing the humour in it.

This cast does not appear to be able to play the humour which makes up much of the first part of the play. The opening scene heavily points the sexual innuendoes without being funny and though the Peter of Matt Cross has a Tommy Steele-like energy, the comedy never takes off. Nor does the poetry. Gideon Turner’s Mercutio, Matthew Rhys’s Romeo and Sîan Brooke’s Juliet all seem in love with words, which spill, from them, but where is the sense beneath? They speak before they think. This certainly gives them a youthful naivete but ill serves the text.

Rhys makes Romeo a restless youth forever pacing and twisting about, a teenager whose voice has scarcely broken. His mate Benvolio (Trystam Gravelle) is rather more grown up but Turner’s Mercutio is a somewhat irritating juvenile — totally justified, of course, since his buddies say they find him so. That is not to say that there is not something engaging about these young people but they don’t seem to be enjoying themselves: their exuberance seems put on. Or is that the point, that Verona is a city of such tensions that no one can ever relax? As for the lovers, they too seem self-dramatizing, more in love with love than with each other. Again, a perfectly possible reading but needing something extra from the actors if we are to recognize the even greater tragedy that it implies. The great speeches seem to slip past without holding the interest, and this is why, perhaps, I found myself picking up on details that had previously escaped my attention.

This being an RSC and Gill production gave me the highest expectations, perhaps unfairly high. They must take that as a compliment. My colleague reviewing this production when it was first seen at Stratford thought very highly of it. Perhaps they, or I, just had an off night.

Howard Loxton © 2004

Originally published on R&V on 24-12-04

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