‘Two Houses. Five Days. A Whirlwind Romance.’
Romeo and Juliet: the tale of two young lovers from rival families who fall hopelessly and inexorably in love but whose relationship and lives are destined to end in fatality. We all know the storyline of Shakespeare’s timeless tragedy and have an opinion on exactly how it should be played whether that comes from the intensity of studying it non-stop for GCSE, being enchanted by Baz Luhrman’s brilliant adaptation set in ‘Verona Beach’ or from seeing a truly sensational live performance. Because of this, and the pressure to constantly re-invent a well-worn classic, it’s always interesting (and ever so slightly nerve-wracking in case it all goes wrong!) to see a company take on Romeo and Juliet.
The mood was set by a series of pre-show mini-performances in the foyer by The Mouthy Poets, offering a new way of approaching and introducing the audience to the themes of the performance. Once inside, Headlong Theatre, led by the astute direction of Robert Icke treated us to a fresh, energetic and above all, contemporary re-imagining of the play. From the very opening scene it is abundantly obvious to the audience that this is a consciously modern interpretation to appeal to a younger audience and to re-invigorate the more seasoned spectator’s enjoyment of the famous tragedy.
An enormous, dark-faced digital clock is projected onto a rectangular screen suspended in the centre of the stage and periodically flicks on throughout the performance to mark the steady passing of time. It also assumes a special importance supporting the Sliding Doors style “what if?” moments of the play where the action rewinds and replays. With this backdrop, we are thrust into Verona and the rival worlds of the Montague’s and Capulet’s.
Romeo’s kinsmen are charismatically portrayed, Mercutio (Tom Mothersdale) is brash and coarse but unavoidably likeable as he struts around provoking the Capulets whilst clad in skinny jeans and electric blue suede ankle boots. Danny Kirrane as Benvolio cleverly maximised all opportunities to inject humour to the proceedings whilst Okezie Morro as Tybalt commanded the stage with authoritative ease.
For me, one of the most enjoyable and amusing scenes was the Capulet’s party when Romeo (Daniel Boyd) and Juliet (Catrin Stewart) first meet. Loud non-descript music pounds out, cocktails are flowing and the night-out gossip that will be repeated the next day is in the making. Keith Bartlett’s Capulet amusingly staggered between his groups of guests and, in an unusual twist, Lady Capulet (Caroline Faber) enjoyed an unexpected romantic liaison. Paris (Tunji Lucas) also meets Juliet for the first time at the party and is convincingly regal and austere throughout.
The leads were flawless throughout. Boyd’s Romeo struck a perfect balance between intense despair and passionate affection in his interaction with Stewart’s love-struck but youthfully naïve Juliet. Her Nurse (Brigid Zengeni) was comfortingly maternal as the pair plotted Juliet’s secret nuptials, and humorous, particularly in her de-tour to the sales en route to arrange her mistress’ meeting with Romeo.
Perhaps one of the only aspects of the play that wasn’t drastically modernised was Stephen Fewell’s Apothecary and Simon Coates’ Friar Laurence who were played traditionally but no less effectively.
The staging was simple and this emphasised its symbolism. A double bed of white sheets took centre stage for a lot of the performance, signifying the private space of a teenage girl in our first encounter with Juliet before being the more intimate setting for Romeo and Juliet’s first night together and later, their final resting place.
An upbeat and eclectic mix of music, including Calvin Harris’s ‘Acceptable in the 80s’ provided enjoyable accompaniment and ensured that the darker moments had their more light-hearted counterparts at other times. Although the production chose to condense aspects of the original text at some points, this succeeded in maintaining a fast-paced, exciting and tense atmosphere which complimented the outstanding performances of a young and very talented cast.