Romeo and Juliet
The York Shakespeare Project
Rowntree Park, York
Amateur groups, even one like the YSP which draws its casts from other groups in York and the surrounding areas, almost always have far more women than men, and so it was not surprising that director Sarah Punshon (until recently trainee director at the West Yorkshire Playhouse) chose to change the sex of some of the lesser characters - Abram, Potpan, the Apothecary and so on - but to make Mercutio a woman? Not played by a women disguised as a man, but actually changing the character's sex. Come on!
But it worked. Partially due to the 1950s setting (and that, too, works well: after all, in the 50s women were just beginning to kick against centuries of male domination but were still often treated as property by their fathers) but mainly to a stunning performance by Cecily Boys. The programme notes give no details of any previous acting experience she may have had, but her commitment to (or, better, her immersion in) the role and her handling of the language were exemplary. How often have we sat in productions of Romeo and Juliet and said to ourselves, when Mercutio is in full flight, "that's a joke"? We didn't here: we just laughed as she extracted every last drop of innuendo and sheer filth out of the words.
All credit to her and, I suspect, to Sarah Punshon, for I felt that this was the first YSP production in which all the cast, even those who had little to say, clearly understood every word. The tone was set right at the beginning with a very clear (and funny) reading of the dialogue between Sampson (Stuart Jarman) and Gregory (Alan Flower), and just built from there.
In fact, Punshon brings out the comedy throughout the play, picking up little clues and expanding them. When Mercutio says to Romeo, "Signior Romeo, bon jour", they play the following lines in an accent which owes much to 'Allo 'Allo but is not just a cheap way of getting a laugh, for it actually helps bring out the humour of the lines. Similarly the banter between Romeo and Benvolio bounces along, helped by gesture and body language.
But although Punshon finds the humour of the play, she doesn't allow it to detract from the tragedy: rather, like the Porter in Macbeth, it serves to bring it out by contrast. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the changes that come over Romeo - from his lovesickness in the earlier scenes (although still able to cap a joke), through his falling in love with Juliet (the first scene between them being played with a nice lightness of touch), to the devastation brought about by his killing of Tybalt and all that follows.
Again Punshon is well served by her actor: Howard Spencer-Mosley (who is not only an actor but also a stand-up comic) is an excellent Romeo, at ease with the lines and with the audience. His Juliet (Katie Martin) is sweet, pretty and convinces as a young girl, little more than a child, suddenly finding passion for the first time.
We don't have the space to mention every actor but one cries out to be spotlighted. Playing Susan and a variety of servants, guests and other "spear-carriers", Donna Preston was superb: each character was different, totally convincing and - where appropriate - very funny.
There was a lot of talent on display in this production and Sarah Punson got the best out of each member of her cast. It is undoubtedly the best YSP production so far and augurs well for the next production, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, which will play at the Friargate Theatre in November/December.
"Romeo and Juliet" continues in Rowntree Park, York, until 24th July (no performance on Monday 18th July)