Romeo and Juliet

William Shakespeare
Derby Playhouse
(2005)

Ben Joiner as Rom,eo and Olivia Lumley as Juliet

Only a few minutes into Stephen Edwards' latest production for Derby Playhouse, I couldn't help recalling an article I'd read in which the American writer and critic Harold Bloom was interviewed. He talked about the "dreadfulness of what are called 'high-concept' directors who are more interested in the height of their own concepts than they are in the height of Shakespeare's own concepts."

I wondered what Bloom would have made of Edwards' approach to one of the Bard's greatest tragedies. A huge chrome tanker dominates the stage. It carries water into a hot, arid landscape. Edwards wants to portray the heat of the setting - and presumably the heat that exists between the Montagues and the Capulets and the heat that Romeo and Juliet feel for each other.

The truck also has a metaphorical image, according to the programme. It suggests a knight in shining armour, a fighting machine of the past, a relic of the war over oil. But it's simply too prominent, especially for most of the second half when it's positioned even closer to the audience; it's a major distraction.

Edwards also wants to stress the timelessness of the play and does this through the costumes: the Capulets are dressed as a British colonial family from about 1900 - but wearing white they appear to have a misplaced aura of innocence. The Montagues are French knights from the 1100s - yet why would they wear such heavy garb when it's supposed to be so hot? And Prince represents the 20th century, so he comes roaring onto the stage on a powerful motorbike.

Fairly soon after the start of the play, the references to the heat evaporate, with only the occasional wiping of a sweaty brow or the frantic flapping of a fan to remind you that the action's supposed to be taking place in a desert.

And it's not long before you form the opinion that the concept seems to have greater priority than the verse-speaking. Some of the actors don't bring out the full richness of Shakespeare's glorious words.

Ben Joiner's Romeo rarely shows the ardour associated with a great lover; Matthew Flynn is an almost anonymous Tybalt; Ashley Cook as Paris shows little anguish when he hears of Juliet's "death" on their wedding day; Genevieve Walsh as the nurse doesn't form a close enough relationship with Juliet; and most of the fight scenes lack aggression and realism.

However, this version of Romeo and Juliet isn't a total behemoth that's heading up a cul-de-sac. Olivia Lumley saves the play from going completely off course with a tender, touching portrayal of Juliet. She has a truckload of passion and shows credible grief when Romeo is banished.

Alistair Robins is brash yet under control as Mercutio and two Playhouse veterans are their usual impressive, dependable selves: Ben Roberts as both Friar Laurence and Prince; and Robin Bowerman as Capulet.

You have to admire Duncan Hayler's design in bringing to life Edwards' concept; it's exceptional - even if you're uncomfortable with the unusual themes surrounding this interpretation. And the music composed by Edwards is expressively performed by Kelvin Towse.

Edwards and Hayler say they've thrown away their preconceptions of Romeo and Juliet. They've had no truck with the traditional image of how a Shakespearean play should look. But for me, this concept is too high for its own good. Back down to earth next time, please.

"Romeo and Juliet" runs until July 2nd

Reviewer: Steve Orme