Romeo and Juliet

William Shakespeare
Royal Shakespeare Company
Theatre Royal, Newcastle, and touring

Last year Nancy Meckler directed The Comedy of Errors for the RSC, bringing to it the physicality for which her company, Shared Experience, is noted, and it worked beautifully. Her Romeo and Juliet, too, is a very physical production with moments of real beauty. The balcony scene, for example, is superb: the balcony itself is a square scaffolding tower inside which is Juliet (emerging from the stage floor) whilst Romeo climbs the outside, together yet separated by the scaffolding tubes. They move lithely up and down in what is almost a dance. In this way a scene which might be considered to be done to death is given new life and excitement.

Similarly, at the end, as Capulet and Montague talk of making a statue of the lovers, they are lifted from the tomb and become the statue, bathed in gold light from overhead. A lovely image, especially as they are surrounded by all the characters posed and lit in a very painterly fashion.

I was, however, less happy with the fight scenes which are done using staves, not swords, and are danced using a fast tap style which is reminiscent of Flamenco. They were superbly well performed but, for me at any rate, the idea added nothing: the words "It's looks good, but why?" went through my head every time.

But Meckler's vision does not focus solely on the visual: the text is well explored and she does, in fact, throw fresh light on the familiar. Particularly striking is Friar Laurence who, to be honest, is too often portrayed as a rather dull and worthy plot device. Meckler doesn't cut his lines to ribbons and his speech about plants at his first appearance is shown to be so relevant that one wonders why it is more often than not omitted. David Fielder gives the character real life and energy.

As for Jamie Ballard's Mercutio, my companion remarked afterwards, "I got everyone of his jokes!" And that's not easy. Ballard, however, made it so and his hyperactive performance was very impressive. As, in a different way, was that of Geoffrey Lumb as Benvolio. He had an air of quiet authority, completing a trio of three very different friends: the frenetic Mercutio, the lovelorn Romeo and the sensible Benvolio.

Sorcha Cusack avoids the temptation to play the Nurse as a comic character but without losing the comedy of the role. We see her first playing a game with Juliet and she is constantly busy throughout, fussing over her charge. This comes close to being the definitive Nurse - and who would have thought she was Irish? But she must have been!

As the lovers Morven Christie and Rupert Evans give totally convincing performances. Evans' over-the-top despair at not getting into Rosaline's favours contrasts sharply with the genuine emotions set ablaze by his meeting with Juliet whilst she flirts delightedly with him at first but then seems almost bemused by the strength of her feelings. This is a controlled Juliet with steel within.

It's a long production - over three hours including the interval - but it never flags. The audience - a very large proportion of which seemed to be school parties - sat engrossed and enjoying throughout. The entire ensemble, Meckler's direction, Katrina's Lindsay's design, Neil Austin's lighting and Ilona Sekacz' music combine to produce a powerful and moving version of what is probably the best known play in the English language, an archetypal story, and whilst there may be disagreements with some of Meckler's ideas, there is no doubt that overall this is a very fine working of the play and very well worth seeing, even for those who may well feel, "Oh no, not another R&J!"

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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