Romeo and Juliet

William Shakespeare
Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory and Tobacco Factory Theatres
Salisbury Playhouse

Paapa Essiedu as Romeo & Daisy Whalley as Juliet Credit: Craig Fuller
Paapa Essiedu as Romeo & Daisy Whalley as Juliet Credit: Craig Fuller

It’s not what you’d normally expect as the opening of Romeo and Juliet, the roar of what sounds like a large commercial jet plane descending on the ancient city of Verona. But we’re in Tobacco Factory territory here, so we can be pretty sure we’re going to have our conventional view of things shaken up and, possibly, even overturned.

This production isn’t set in sixteenth century Italy, then, as you might expect, but in post World War 2 Europe, exact location unspecified, a time when, as the programme reminds us, young people are looking to form ideals and ready, if necessary, to fight to achieve them. And if those in authority, personified here by Lords Capulet and Montague, get in the way they’d better look out. It will take more than the moderating influence of the Prince to calm things down.

The set, which remains constant, consists of a circular platform on which are some sturdy-looking fence posts which will make useful weapons when the fighting breaks out. The platform can be called on to revolve, which helps to add to the general melee when required.

Hovering over the stage is an enormous electronic mirror. When the two sets of adversaries take a break from fighting, with its accompanying sixties rock music, the resulting bloodshed is shown in its reflection. It’s a big cast, fourteen altogether, and director Polina Kalinina is to be commended for her imaginative and energetically feisty crowd scenes. This is mayhem we can really believe in.

Of course, recent news stories involving paedophiles are bound to make an unwelcome intrusion into our thoughts as we watch the not yet fourteen-year-old Juliet (young Daisy Whalley in only her second professional role) being dragooned into preparations for her unwelcome marriage to the business-suited Paris (Jack Wharrier).

Her speech and movements are so much those of the modern teenager that this only adds to the poignancy of her situation. If a little of the poetry is lost in her necessarily quick-fire delivery this is entirely appropriate. And we’re comforted to know that at least she has the spirited and gutsy Nurse (Sally Oliver) always at hand with her reassuring hugs, an ever-present refuge from the threats and rages of her status-driven father (Timothy Knightly) and ineffectual mother (Fiona Sheehan).

So many fine performances. The friar (Paul Currier) draws on all our heartstrings when he realises how his well-meaning interference has helped to bring about such calamitous results, while the Capulet and Montague followers, energetically leaping on and off the revolving stage and into the audience, ensure that the tension is kept at near breaking point.

In contrast, the second half opens with a functional bed, centre stage, which will, inevitably, by an ingenious arrangement of sheets, become a marble tomb. Oh yes. Romeo (Paapa Essiedo). What a star! From his first entrance he engages with the audience. We not only empathise with Juliet’s passion for him, we share it. Facial expressions, gestures and body language all contribute. We know what he sees in this chit of a girl and, in spite of knowing his, and Juliet’s, inevitable end, we wish him well.

Sadly, Salisbury is the last venue for the production’s present tour, but it’s good to see so many enthusiastic teenagers in the audience, which, seeing that this is the classic play about teenagers, seems entirely appropriate.

Reviewer: Anne Hill

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