Romeo and Juliet

William Shakespeare adapted by Anne Bailie
Lyric Theatre, Belfast
Lyric Theatre, Belfast

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Adam Gillian and Emma Dougan as Romeo and Juliet Credit: Carrie Davenport
Adam Gillian as Romeo and Emma Dougan as Juliet Credit: Carrie Davenport
Laura Hughes as Nurse in Romeo and Juliet Credit: Carrie Davenport
Laura Hughes (Nurse), Patrick Buchanan (Lord Capulet) and Rosie McClelland (Lady Capulet) Credit: Carrie Davenport
Adam Gillian as Romeo Credit: Carrie Davenport
Emma Dougan as Juliet Credit: Carrie Davenport

Staging its first Shakespeare in more than a decade, the Lyric Belfast pays its third visit to fair Verona (the first in 1959, the most recent in 1997) for a truncated Romeo and Juliet rooted in the here and now in Anne Bailie’s cut-to-the-bone adaptation.

Aiming for concision, Philip Crawford’s contemporary-accented production has multiple agendas working beneath its surface. Not least squaring accessibility for the school-age audiences eager to see a GCSE and A Level set text in performance with the more sophisticated expectations of those familiar with the seminal, doom-laden tale of the star-crossed lovers.

Cutting the playing time by half delivers both plusses and pitfalls. Crawford adroitly refuses the obvious reflex of equating the feuding Montagues and Capulets with the sectarian divide that stubbornly haunts Northern Ireland to deliver something more universal in tone. Robin Peoples’s golden sandstone and marbled Italianate set, warmly illuminated by James C McFetridge’s sun-dappled lighting, lends a mellow Mediterranean hue to proceedings.

But with local accents to the fore—and why not, Peter Hall having claimed Northern Irish pronunciation as the closest modern equivalent to Shakespeare’s Elizabethan tongue—the issue of clarity and coherence becomes paramount. And wanting.

With half of the 16-strong cast alumni of the Lyric’s Drama Studio—a development programme ­for young actors that recently earned Crawford’s stewardship a UK Theatre Award—their lack of experience is exposed. Equally so their adult colleagues unaccustomed to the rhythmic disciplines and nuances of Shakespeare’s language.

Making her professional debut, Emma Dougan’s Juliet is accomplished enough to suggest a performance that will develop and deepen with time, Adam Gillian’s Romeo not yet as ardent as he needs be. Lacking in both is the desperation of love challenged but defiant and resolute that dilutes what little the chemistry there is between them.

With the attempt at concision creating the impression of watching in fast-forward, lack of diction and generally small vocal performances rob the whole of necessary clarity and coherence. Surface is all here, substance sorely lacking. The result is rather thin, un-nourishing gruel.

There are encouraging elements around which the production might grow when performances settle and become more comfortable with, invested in, the verse: Patrick Buchanan and Rosie McClelland’s Lord and Lady Capulet, Thomas Finnegan’s Mercutio, David Craig’s Tybalt, Ray Sesay's Friar Laurence, Laura Hughes’s surprisingly well-heeled Nurse, and the merely glimpsed but vivid Lady Montague of Mary Moulds all providing solid, if as yet unsure, signposts.

Cavils aside, the schools’ matinée audience around me were clearly engaged and receptive to the production’s appeal to glamour—the feuding families here become two competing fashion houses—and to its pared-back brevity. Whether they were able to take anything deeper, more meaningful away from it is moot.

Reviewer: Michael Quinn

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