Romeo and Juliet

William Shakespeare
The Almeida Theatre

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Romeo and Juliet Credit: Marc Brenner
Romeo (Toheeb Jimoh) and Juliet (Isis Hainsworth) Credit: Marc Brenner
Juliet (Isis Hainsworth) and Romeo (Toheeb Jimoh) Credit: Marc Brenner

There is an expressionistic quality to Romeo and Juliet directed by Rebecca Frecknall. It opens with the cast slowly walking down the aisles in semi-darkness to the front of the stage where they push their hands and bodies against what looks like a vast stone wall upon which is projected the bare announcement of Romeo and Juliet’s death. The combined efforts of the cast bring the wall crashing down to form the base of a stage.

It’s not the only visual indication of the collective cause of what takes place. Balletic musical sequences to the “Dance of the Knights” from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet are dotted about the evening, the cast sometimes beginning with genteel traditional movements but including more modernistic formation waving of arms in the air like a disturbing march of animated zombies.

Such moments are brief in this swift-moving, two-hour production that cuts both the opening sequence of the play and the scene that follows the death of Juliet along with the length of some of the speeches and encounters between characters. There is a cinematic quality to the pacing and presentation of scenes, with for instance the show intercutting very effectively the scene between Romeo (Toheeb Jimoh) and Friar Lawrence following Tybalt’s death with that of the scene between the Nurse and Juliet.

Everything happens quickly on a stage where darkness and shadows add to a sombre mood in which humour is almost entirely absent. The cast gives a very accessible spoken and physical performance with Paul Higgins particularly impressive as an avuncular friar Lawrence.

This performance has become mainly male with a limited presence of women. Isis Hainsworth as Juliet is assertive, but though her mother (Amanda Bright) may demand the death of Romeo for killing Tybalt, she simply looks appalled when her husband is angrily insisting their daughter marry the man he has chosen. The Nurse’s (Jo Minnes) contributions are reduced considerably.

Although we can still see this tragedy as a result of an oppressive society which denies a woman the right to choose whom she loves, the adults in this production can seem little more than incidental bystanders to the dysfunctional violence of young males.

All the same, Rebecca Frecknall has delivered a serious, finely choreographed show that feels fresh and entertaining.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna

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