Romeo and Juliet
The Lord Chamberlain's Men
Museum Gardens, York, and touring
The Lord Chamberlain's Men's Creative Director Mark Puddle is 'almost certain' that this is the first professional all-male production of Romeo and Juliet in over 400 years. Quite a claim, but this is the company's vision - who 'perform with an all male cast, as Shakespeare would have originally envisioned them,' says the programme.
Seven actors take to the stage to portray eighteen characters between them. The costumes are Elizabethan and with the quick change of a cloak and hat Paris can transform into Balthasar. The stage is a high wooden, scaffolded structure complete with square wooden tower, which shakes authentically as Romeo climbs to his lover's balcony. Juliet is young man with a hair band and a dress (no wigs, no make up), and the nurse is the far distant godfather of the pantomime dame. The sword fights are balletic and flamboyant, built to entertain, and at the beginning the actors mingle with the audience, singing and capering, as they would have done a few hundred years ago. This is certainly Romeo and Juliet well and truly in the buff 'as Shakespeare intended'.
We are definitely delivered 'the ultimate Shakespeare experience' of his day, but -since Shakespeare has come a long way in 400 years - does it work?
Interestingly what stands out from this production is what a dreamer Romeo is. When the audience are not beguiled by the beauty of a young female actress playing Juliet, we see a dangerously romantic boy taking advantage of the naivety of a vulnerable 14 year old girl, led on by his impetuous dreams. Although David Eaton (Juliet) is not 14 (as the actor might have been in Shakespeare's day), he certainly conveys the inexperience and artlessness of a closeted young girl. Although he might have a penchant for swirling his petticoats a few too many times there is a sweetness and an innocence that ultimately win you over.
Bruce Godfree is our weeping and stubborn Romeo whose teenage tantrum in front of the Friar is classic, until he runs to the bosom of the Nurse for comfort when he doesn't get his way. And although Peter Stickney (Lady Capulet) retains the most dignity of the men portraying women, it is Morgan Brind who captivates as the Nurse. His performance shows that the less you do in conveying the fairer sex, the more convincing you are. His love for his young charge is tender and his forthright commonsense in the face of adversity are spot on for the sensible older woman.
The ruined churchyard of St Mary's Abbey in York's Museum Gardens is a fantastic setting for this outdoor production and with the cold evening drawing in, the actors definitely don't lose any time getting started - but 'Jesu, what haste?'. There is certainly no lack of attention to clarity and vocal projection but nobody but the Nurse seemed to manage a pause until after the interval. Here Richard Corgan did well as an angry Capulet, rejecting his disobedient daughter, but some how the severity of the enmity of the two houses' quarrel passed us by with his Mercutio, who was cocky but not witty.
The actors have a limited amount of space to use on the small stage but Kerry Bradley makes economical but imaginative use of its possibilities without any tricks. With the only lighting being the foot lights on the stage there isn't much chance of using the audience's ground level in the second half but its potential was underused in the first half. The audience clearly responded and thoroughly enjoyed the actors walking among them during the opening song but after that, director Lucy Pitman-Wallace kept them pretty much confined to the stage. Possibly this is due to the company's Elizabethan sensibilities, and the probability of the groundlings throwing fruit or all to enthusiastically joining in with the action in Shakespeare's day, but where it didn't exactly detract, it didn't enliven the performance.
Ultimately the question arises from this company's Elizabethan restrictions is why limit yourself? Shakespeare's imagination was boundless and the reason why his work has endured for so long, and, while this production does give you something more raw in your 'Shakespeare experience', there was somehow a lack of beauty in this intellectual curiosity.
Reviewer: Cecily Boys