Romeo and Juliet

William Shakespeare
Royal Shakespeare Company
Courtyard Theatre, Stratford
(2008)

Friar Laurence’s reprimand that Romeo’s “tears are womanish”, when Romeo hears that he is to be banished from Verona for the bloody murder of Tybalt, fittingly describes the overarching imagery of the RSC’s latest offering at the Courtyard Theatre, Stratford. The star-crossed Romeo is ever wiping a tear from his bloodshot eyes, there seeming little respite for this youth from abject despair over one young woman or another.

Romeo’s “womanish” behaviour is at odds with the violent society within which he lives. The dark, tomblike atmosphere of Verona is conjured in Kandis Cook’s minimalist industrial setting. The play is transported to a Sicilian-style Mafioso world from the 1950s, complete with a Godfather pastiche musical accompaniment and macho posing Latino alpha males.

The play begins with a street knife-fight. With all the violence of a Spanish bull-baiting, men and women slash and slice with flick-knives or nails. Alison de Burgh’s surprisingly vivid fight direction adds to the sense of danger and posturing destruction. The Capulets and the Montagues are at loggerheads. This is a battle of survival, a vendetta that appears generations old, and which only a tragedy of young death can finally and irrevocably resolve.

Neil Bartlett’s production, which has been touring the UK since October, is clear and well-structured. The twentieth-century Italian location has, hopefully, made the play more accessible to a younger audience used to filmic representations of feuding gangsterism. Bartlett has created a stylized whole which complements, rather than hinders, what can to modern taste be an overly-dramatic tragedy.

Generally, performances match the integrity of the piece. Particularly notable is David Dawson’s Romeo. With just a hint of Michael Sheen, and with the deft physical presence of a young Robert Helpmann, Dawson captured the hearts of the Courtyard audience. Tears flowed as he yearned first for Rosalind, and then shifted his heart to Juliet. With the tears came a childlike innocence which made his outbursts of anger all the more believable and shocking.

Similarly, James Clyde as Friar Laurence gave a measured and sincere performance of this notoriously difficult role. Not old doddering monk nor comic Tuck-figure, Clyde’s Friar Laurence is a believable cleric for such a strife-torn city. At any moment, Friar Laurence might have drawn his own blade to defend his faith and that of his young charges.

There were problems, however, with balance. The play seemed, in many places, vocally under-energized. Important moments of dialogue could be lost with the merest cough from the audience. This was unfortunate as there is no doubt that many performances were good. A little more volume and a little less filmic realism might be in order.

A personal gripe and one which surely points to health-and-safety issues gone mad. An incongruous moment in the play requires Romeo to scale a rear-stage ladder to escape his attackers. Fine. Ladder - actor - escape. That seems simple enough. Surely, in such a supposed moment of high tension, the image of that same actor clumsily attaching himself to a safety rope is at best unnecessarily wimpish, and at worst farcical? If the “stunt” is too dangerous, why on earth destroy the illusion of danger, especially when the manoeuvre itself was neither necessary or convincing?

Given the hype surrounding the RSC offerings which are now gracing London’s West End stage, Romeo and Juliet had an almost impossible act to follow. As a worthy and visually-exciting venture which has raised awareness of the play and of the RSC around the country, Bartlett’s production excels. As a consistently gripping and clear instance of RSC play-producing, this over-long exploration of Italian cultural anguish lacks that fire which could drive two lovers tragically to take their young lives.

Playing in repertoire until 24th January

David Chadderton reviewed this production on tour at The Lowry, Salford

Reviewer: Kevin Quarmby