Romeo and Juliet, Barbican Arts Centre, London
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s dystopian, youthful production of Romeo and Juliet is as topical as it is tragic. With our capital in thrall to a series of dreadful knife attacks, Shakespeare’s Verona is transposed here, now, London, 2018. In Erica Whyman’s streetwise staging, passions flare, daggers are drawn – and another life is lost to sectarian loyalties and wounded male pride. Caught up in the violent power struggle, unable to imagine alternative futures, youth succumbs to nihilism.
Tom Piper’s set is a brutalist, adolescent playground – a stark, grey, ‘hostile environment’, dominated by a large concrete cube. Alternately climbing-frame, balcony and bedroom, it’s a structure momentarily softened with greenery, as kindly Friar Lawrence’s cell with a shower of fairy lights at the Capulet ball, and the gentle embrace of lovers entwined.
A young, diverse, gender-fluid cast – including a few children straight from school – vigorously plays out the age-old themes. Here is love, of course. Filial, romantic, and carnal, charming naivety and youthful impetuosity.
Here too are the tribal loyalties that divide, the poisonous ancient hatreds. With adrenaline and discontent coursing through their veins, lines are drawn between Montagues and Capulets. Powerful, affluent families, these, exposed for what they are – gangs, in fact. Their internecine battles are clearly analogous with the postcode wars being fought on London’s mean streets.
This production casts five women in traditionally male roles. Beth Cordingly is a powerful Prince Escalus, but I was faintly puzzled by Charlotte Josephine’s punky Mercutio, who recalled for me Toyah Wilcox in Derek Jarman’s 1978 film, Jubilee. A cropped-haired, fists-first, laddish sort – not at all the Mercutio I have always felt so enthusiastic about. I yearned for John McEnery’s heartfelt interpretation, from Zeffirelli’s vehement 1968 film version.
There were though several really strong performances. Bally Gill’s fresh and endearing Romeo sparkled with boyish, cheeky charm. He was well-met in Karen Fishwick, whose feisty embodiment as Juliet expressed the pain of teenage defiance and callow infatuation – although I’m not sure the chemistry was really firing between these star-cross’d lovers…
I adored Ishia Bennison’s Nurse, wonderfully light-hearted and more bubbly than I can ever remember. Andrew French made a strong and impassioned Friar Lawrence, and he definitely took the prize for eloquence. I was less enamoured of Michael Hodgson’s shouty Capulet, whose character was reduced to strutting and barking.
The play certainly has the power to unsettle – and not just with its senseless slaughter. We are shockingly reminded how young Juliet is; a child, just 13 years old. What was common practice in the 16th century is criminal here now – yet we know that adults everywhere still trade their girl children in marriage. Likewise, in this very contemporary retelling, the old innuendos felt awkward. Winking, leering and thrusting provoked nervous laughter, which seemed only to implicate us, as spectators, knowing or naïve.
Whyman’s production hits and misses the mark in equal measure. In its favour, it provokes us with a raw, modern juvenile romance. No mean feat, for sure. Yet for me it failed somewhat as a vehicle for the ardor and beauty of Shakespeare’s verse – and ultimately I craved Verona. Perhaps renaissance loveliness provides a more reassuring backdrop to brutal tragedy…
Here on the Barbican’s expansive stage, Verona has become dark London. Beneath the swagger and machismo, fear reigns and the stabbings multiply. Sadness, madness and badness, vengeance and bloodshed. In this vicious play-of-blades, we’re all losers.
Romeo and Juliet runs until 19th January at the Barbican Theatre
Also showing at the Barbican – see our review of the RSC production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth