The Theatreguide.London Review
For our archive, we have filed reviews of several productions and adaptations of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet on this page. Scroll down for the one you're looking for, or just browse.
2000 - Shakespeare's Globe 2000 - RSC 2000 - British Touring
Shakespeare 2002 - Regent's Park 2002 - Piccadilly Theatre 2002
Arts Theatre 2003 - Young Vic 2003 - Albery Theatre 2004 - RSC 2010 - RSC 2018
The first thing to say about the Royal National Theatre's new production is that I saw it at a matinee full of school parties, and the kids were enthralled. The second is that a small but noticeable number of adults didn't return after the interval.
And that about sums it up: a clear, clean, youthful, accessible production, perhaps ideal for the first-timer, but with little to offer the more experienced theatre-goer.
Tim Supple's modern dress production is nominally set in South America, though there is little beyond hints in the music and an interracial cast to suggest that. The Capulets are white patricians, the Montagues prosperous middle-class blacks, and the playing suggests that the conflict between them is more class-based than racial.
Chiwetel Ejiofor's dreadlocked Romeo is attractively youthful, whether moping over Rosaline or caught up in the enthusiasm of his new love for Juliet. But Charlotte Randle is too mature and sophisticated a Juliet for him. Very much in the style of her elegant but distant mother (Olwen Fouere) - she attends the ball in a high-fashion gown that's a bit much for a thirteen-year-old - she remains cool and in control throughout.
So the meeting and the balcony scene just don't work - he's a boy swept away by his first experience of passion, while she seems almost bored in a been-there-done-that way. She isn't able to work up much energy in her other big scenes, either. So this is, curiously, a Romeo and Juliet without passion, without any real sense of a special union of souls there on stage.
The supporting cast do what they can to pick up the slack. Andy Williams' skinhead Tybalt and Patrick O'Kane's wise guy Mercutio provide some kinetic energy; O'Kane captures the horror of Mercutio's death scene, when everyone thinks he's joking, particularly well. Lloyd Hutchinson's no-nonsense Irish Friar keeps things moving, though Beverley Klein's Nurse can't seem to decide just how Yiddish she is. Ronald Pickup provides appropriate gravitas as Capulet.
This is a R&J that never flags, never loses clarity - and never catches fire.
In addition to its resident company, the reconstruction of Shakespeare's original theatre plays host to occasional visits from theatre companies from around the world. This year's visitor is Grupo Galpao from Brazil, a street theatre troupe that has been performing a popular version of Romeo and Juliet for five years.
My general dislike of the work of the Globe's company is on record. Although one of the main purposes of rebuilding the Globe was to allow actors and directors to explore the way the plays were first performed, and thus learn new things about them, the Globe company has generally given us almost exactly the same productions they would have done on a proscenium stage, and generally lifeless ones at that.
It took a street theatre company to finally teach us how to use the Globe - not with conventional staging and the occasional token aside to the groundlings, but with an expansive, audience-directed playing style that is often comic in its broadness but can also be operatic in its passions and evocatively beautiful in its quiet moments.
Playing on a set built around and atop an automobile, Grupo Galpao employ clowning, acrobatics, music and dance without ever losing sight of the delicate story at the centre. With the text cut to 90 minutes, and a Shakespeare-like narrator figure (Antonio Edson) providing links, and with boisterous or sentimental musical numbers at every opportunity, the general tone is of high spirits.
Even Romeu (Eduardo Moreira) and Julieta (Fernanda Vianna) have their comic sides. Along with some others in the cast, he spends much of the play on stilts, occasionally accompanying his romanticism on an accordion. Julieta is dressed as a ballerina, and loses no opportunity to parade her beauty, spending much of her time en pointe. In a wry reversal of expectation, the balcony scene is played with her peeping out of the car window while he stands on its roof.
Judging from the laughter of the Portuguese speakers in the audience, some jokes are lost in the absence of translation. But others, like the broad comic costuming and playing of the Nurse (Teuda Bara), sporting water-balloon breasts and usually announcing her arrival by a blast of the car horn, come through successfully. There are even musical jokes, like the sly quoting of the theme from the 1968 film, played on the saxophone by the Friar in his guise as sunglass-wearing hipster.
For all the broad playing and humour, the play's quiet moments are its most effective. The wedding scene is delicately lovely, and the grief of the lovers on parting is moving despite the language barrier. Julieta's potion scene, though not sung, has the high drama of an operatic aria. And the death scenes capture all the pathos and tragedy, Julieta dancing a brief hommage to the Dying Swan.
In every way director Gabriel Villela and his troupe exploit the potential of the Globe and capture the essence and spirit of their play more successfully than any production by the theatre's resident company. We can only hope that the locals didn't take the two weeks off, but are studying and learning from them.
Does the world need yet another Romeo and Juliet? The answer, of course, is Yes. For every one of us who has seen the play dozens of times, there are dozens having their first opportunity to come under its spell. And for them, even an imperfect R&J is a revelation. I sat in a theatre filled with school parties - the Royal Shakespeare Company always includes in its repertory whatever play is on this year's school curriculum, in order to serve this audience - and they were spellbound through at least the first half.
That's in spite of the fact that this really is an imperfect R&J, with director Michael Boyd unable to give it any real shape or pacing, and as it drifted towards its well-over-three-hour length, it lost even the most dedicated in the audience.
Boyd seems to have had no clear vision for the play, jumping from style to style and gimmick to gimmick. There are naturalistic scenes, symbolic moments, oratorical speeches, ghosts, even an oddly Brechtian sequence that is totally unsympathetic to the text. Indeed, whenever there are three or four people onstage, they are likely to be performing in different styles, seemingly oblivious to each other.
There is no sense of intimacy between Juliet (Alexandra Gilbreath) and her determinedly unfunny Nurse (Eileen McCallum), or between Romeo (David Tennant) and the tediously preachy Friar (Des McAleer). There is little sense of community or gang rivalry among the young men, with Adrian Schiller's laid-back Mercutio and Keith Dunphy's thuggish Tybalt functioning in a vacuum. And most of the secondary figures (and even the leads occasionally) either rush through their lines in a gabble or slog through them ponderously.
The best thing about this production is Tennant's Romeo, engagingly boyish and open, and believably confused by the rush of grown-up emotions he is suddenly feeling. It is a nice touch that he occasionally retreats into self-mockery as a way of trying to escape from the pain of feeling, only to be bowled over by the next wave of love, fear or despair.
For example, in what seems to be becoming the RSC's standard reading of the scene, "But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?" begins before Juliet appears on the balcony, as a half-joking exaggeration of his own feelings. Then, when the line seems to magically conjure her up, he is movingly stunned.
Unfortunately, none of this open youthfulness or sense of overpowering emotion is to be found in Gilbreath's Juliet, who is always cool, mature (Lines establishing Juliet's age as 13 have been cut) and not especially virginal. There are no hints of childishness in her byplay with the nurse; she dances sexily at the ball; she proposes marriage with the snappy practicality of a shrew-in-training; and she waits for the wedding night with the distinct air of one who's been there before. There's no emotional journey for this cold fish, and even the nightmare speech doesn't faze her.
What carries a production of R&J beyond the ordinary, beyond the base level of the play's greatness that will reach new audiences however poorly it is done, is the capturing of two qualities: the magnificence of the poetry and the transcendent beauty of young love. With little mastery of the first, and only half-delivery of the second, this R&J is only for the school groups, and is partly cheating even them.
A couple of spots, comfy sofa and a healthy dollop of ham are all British Touring Shakespeare needs for the most inspired renditions of Romeo and Juliet you are likely to see. Reverential where it should be, disreputable where it shouldn't, this is no simple rereading but a full-blooded return to Shakespeare's original spirit. Just my type of theatre, in fact.
Raked by Kevin James' bold swathes of lighting lyrically tracking each shift in mood - the minimalism cannot disguise the immense inventiveness of director Miles Gregory's vision. Street gags and drama weave in and out of Desperately Seeking Susan and Quadrophenia. Accordingly, the order of dress is bovver boots, braces and T-shirts, the language coarse Estuary, the Apothecary a drugs dealer, the fight scene a graphic Stanley knife wrestling bout.
As the Nurse, a heavily-stubbled Tobias Beer pulls off a comic creation of near genius even if his adlibs are not always appropriate to the moment. David Barnaby and Jean Marlow make a powerful yet mellow Lord and Lady Capulet, while youngbloods Tybalt and Mercutio are roles to revel in, courtesy respectively of Tom Mallaburn and William Finkenrath. Asa Joel turns in a thoughtful Friar Laurence as besandalled, front-line community worker.
The trade-off of such equally real-life and larger than life characters is that the love story is eclipsed. Mike Rogers' Romeo and Lucia Latimer's Juliet, hard as they strive, cannot compete with the comedy and violence wheeling around them. Our star-crossed lovers appear oddly bland unhelped by their problematic projection (particularly Latimer) and lack the youth to exude the prerequisite bloom of innocent discovery that makes the final death scene so tragic.
Dominic Hill's new production for the Regent's Park summer season is remarkably clear and accessible. Everyone speaks the verse very well, all asides and soliloquies are addressed full-front so we can't miss a word or meaning, and the 1950s costumes are pleasantly enlightening -- Juliet looks like she came straight from the malt shop, for example -- without being intrusive. I saw the play with several coachloads of students, who were all held by the play from start to finish. That's a pretty good recommendation right there.
There's a price to be paid for this accessibility, though, and it's a big one. At no time did I ever feel the exquisite, life-changing love of Romeo and Juliet, and an R&J without that almost loses its reason for being. While Laura Main does capture some of Juliet's bright-eyed perkiness, and evokes considerable pathos in the final scene, Alan Westaway's Romeo is stolid throughout, and there is no chemistry between them. You have to take it on faith that they're in love, because you don't see much evidence of it.
The supporting players are generally fine. Carol Macready offers a considerably less broadly comic Nurse than I would like, but she does convey her powerful maternal love for Juliet. John Hodgkinson's Mercutio is played as a little older than the others, descending into a despairing alcoholism, an interesting characterisation that the text doesn't give him enough time to develop fully. Benedict Cumberbach's open and sensible Benvolio is less of a nonentity than that character often is, while Christopher Godwin captures both the genial host and the domestic tyrant in Juliet's father.
While not quite so indestructible as A Midsummer Night's Dream, even an only-partly-successful R&J can be a good experience, and on a pleasant summer evening, little can beat the magic of Shakespeare-in-the-park. So, if you don't demand a sense of the high passion that is the essence of this play, this partly-successful little production can do very nicely.
Hey, here's a swell idea! We'll do a musical of Romeo and Juliet, and we'll put it in modern dress, and there'll be teen gangs, and singing and dancing! It's a shame people like Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins didn't think of that 45 years ago.
Actually, this new musical, brought over from Paris and Englished by Don Black and David Freeman, follows Shakespeare somewhat more closely than West Side Story did, but that's just about its only virtue. The songs by Gerard Presgurvic and Black are uniformly third-rate and derivative, echoing Les Mis, Phantom, Blood Brothers and even Miss Saigon, and the dialogue is equally leaden.
Consider the balcony scene - actually more like a birdcage in David Roger's ugly set design. Some of the most beautiful love poetry ever written is replaced by "Your name's my enemy. Get rid of it." (A few scenes later, after their one night of love, Romeo leaves with "It was the night of my life, Juliet. Thanks.")
And at the point where Bernstein and Sondheim placed their song Tonight, one of the Broadway musical's truly iconic moments, we get a song with the lyrics "They don't know what they're saying/This love of mine is staying." (The show's big love song has the lyrics "Your eyes, these are my rivers/Your arms, these are my mountains," a fairly bizarre set of images.)
As the lovers, Andrew Bevis and Lorna Want are both very pretty in the sexless Pop Idol way, while Jane McDonald as the Nurse and Sevan Stephan as the Friar have some moments of dignity, as well as the show's one strong song, Fools, an attack on the obscenity of killing.
The rest of the cast are relative unknowns, some of whom may actually work again sometime, so there's no point in naming them. David Freeman's direction and Redha's choreography are as leaden-footed as the rest.
There is little that is actively offensive about this musical. In a modest production in a fringe theatre, perhaps with a student cast, it might even be pleasant. But it is simply totally out of its league in the West End, and has no business being here.
According to the promotional brochure for Joe Calarco's adaptation, "In a repressive boarding school four boys discover a banned copy of... Romeo and Juliet... that shatters the boundaries of the world they know." That's a legitimate concept, I suppose, if an unnecessarily complicated one - the play has survived 400 years without such excess baggage. But the concept is in the brochure, and not really there onstage.
Yes, the cast of four do play schoolboys, and some comic business at the start establishes that it is a tough school and that they sneak out a copy of Romeo and Juliet to read at night. But the idea that it somehow affects them is never really developed beyond some purely mechanical things like having some offstage noises in the play scare them because they think it might be their schoolmasters.
The gimmick works somewhat better in the other direction. After a very brief bit of camping, they don't really play any of the female characters as female, so that Juliet is as much a young boy in love, frustration, fear and despair as Romeo.
That inevitably invokes images of the homosexual crushes of a boys' school, but what it actually does is de-sex the play, so that the characters are talking about pure love, not eroticism, in a way that is wholly appropriate to Shakespeare's poetry.
But of course that isn't a new discovery. Jan Kott was preaching that gospel 40 years ago, and virtually every single-gender production of Shakespeare has had the same effect, of stripping away the distractions of sexuality. Still, it's nice to see it done again, and for newcomers to the concept it can be a real revelation, freeing the play from the gingerbread romanticism too many conventional productions bury it in.
Serving as his own director, Joe Calarco keeps the production bustling along, with heavy cutting of the text and the nervous intensity of the schoolboy characters keeping the energy level high. There's little in the way of props beyond a couple of chairs and a long swath of red cloth used symbolically for all the deaths.
The weakest sections of the play come when director-adaptor Calarco strains too hard to connect the Shakespeare to the schoolhouse frame. The balcony scene, played on a flat surface with the boys shining flashlights at each other, is clearly meant to invoke an appropriate sense of dangerous hiding-in-the-dark, but doesn't really work, while having Capulet's anger at Juliet trigger the boys' sudden vicious beating-up of one of their number (when there has been no indication of antagonism within the group) is just a shock effect with no real point or resonance.
Matthew Sincell plays the boy playing Romeo and Jason Michael Spelbring the Juliet, while Jeremy Beck and Jason Dubin fill in the rest of the cast. All do a solid job of depicting their characters-as-seen-by-schoolboys, though the schoolboys themselves are never really individualised.
Young Vic Theatre
(Reviewed at the Young Vic)
Almost 40 years ago Peter Brook famously set A Midsummer Night's Dream in a circus world and helped many audiences to rediscover the play's wonder and magic.
Now Iceland's Vesturport Theatre Ensemble has put Romeo and Juliet in a similar setting. Characters tumble and flip, swing from trapezes, build human pyramids, eat fire, and clown about.
And it has nothing to do with Shakespeare's play.
The extent to which that will bother you will depend on what you want from the show. Certainly the several groups of teenagers at the opening performance at the Young Vic had a wonderful time watching all the razzle-dazzle. Here was Shakespeare that didn't put them to sleep.
But all the adults I spoke with began to notice sooner or later that the acrobatics and clowning weren't illuminating or redefining the play in any way. In fact, they were fighting it, keeping any of Shakespeare's poetry or tragedy from coming through. For them, and for me, the production was getting in the way of the play, not aiding it.
If you accept that the spectacle exists for its own sake, and not to serve the play, then it won't really matter to you that few in the cast are really successful as actors. The play is performed in English, with ringmaster-prologue Vikingur Kristjansson making a running gag out of our fear that it will be in Icelandic, but little in the way of characterisation survives the translation.
Most Icelanders speak fluent English, but several in the cast, most troublingly Gisli Orn Gardarsson as Romeo, recite as if they had learned the English phonetically, with no comprehension of its meaning. Others, like Nina Dogg Filippusdottir's Juliet and Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson's Mercutio, are clearly too distracted by their acrobatic obligations to be able to focus on their acting.
Only a few peripheral characters really come alive - Margret Vilhjalmsdottir's tomboyish female Benvolio, Olafur Darri Olafsson's panto-dame Nurse, and Erlandur Eiriksson's cheesy crooner Paris - but even that list shows how the production's inventiveness is all irrelevant to the play at its core.
Bring the kids, who will have the same kind of fun they would have at Disney on Ice. Just don't expect Shakespeare.
The thing about most of Shakespeare's plays is that, when they're done very well, they're great, and when they're done less well, they're still pretty good.
This RSC production, transferred from Stratford, has a lot of things wrong with it. But at its centre are two people who you can really believe are young and caught up in the wonder and horror of first love. And that, as Franco Zefferelli first discovered forty years ago, can more than make up for all the rest.
Matthew Rhys and Sian Brooke are not yet great actors. But they communicate the youth and passion of Shakespeare's lovers better than most pairs I've seen in recent years, in both cases by capturing youth's contradictions.
He is on the one hand attractively manly and less effete than many Romeos and on the other hand totally out of his depth in both emotion and drama, as a teenager would be. The scene in which Romeo, hearing he's been banished, falls to the floor in grief almost always comes across as babyish petulance, but Rhys makes it the real and very moving experience of a very young man seeing his whole world collapse and simply not knowing how to cope.
Brooke, in turn, catches Juliet's girlishness, the mercurial leaps from melodramatic sighs to uncontrolled giggles, making the balcony scene an absolute delight to watch. And even when the play makes Juliet grow up overnight, her passions and fears are still recognizably those of a very real and very young woman.
And that is, as I said, enough to outweigh everything else in this production, even though almost everything else in this production is very poor.
Director Peter Gill does nothing to hold the eye - the actors are too often just lined up in a row making speeches at each other - and, worse, has guided none of the other actors toward living characterisations or even natural line readings. This is far too often an evening of poetic recitations rather than a living drama, with actors who do know how to recite prettily just taking turns reciting prettily.
June Watson as the Nurse and Peter Bygott as Friar Laurence come closest to creating characters, mainly by bringing their own attractive personalities to the words they are saying. But no one else - Mercutio, Tybalt, Benvolio or either set of parents - is ever more than a stick figure reciting lines.
Even Rhys and Brooke become wooden in too many of their scenes with others, dragged down by the director's failure to give those parts of the play any reality.
If you've never seen Romeo and Juliet onstage, by all means see this one. You will enjoy the parts that matter and possibly not know what you're missing in the rest. But if you have, then chances are that any production you've seen will have been more successful overall than this one.
Almost sixty years ago director Franco Zeffirelli and the Royal Shakespeare Company taught us the secret to Romeo And Juliet – no more middle-aged actors pretending to be teenagers. Cast a young couple who convey the excitement and confusion of first love, and all the rest falls into place.
For this RSC production director Erica Whyman has done just that, and everything that matters about the play is successfully there.
Bally Gill's Romeo has a thoroughly engaging mix of adolescent awkwardness and inspired flights of poetry, while Karen Fishwick's Juliet grows up before our – and her own – eyes, frequently surprising herself with her depth of feeling and insight.
Fishwick makes more of the scene in which Juliet is torn by her conflicting feelings about Tybalt's death and Romeo's banishment than any other actress I've ever seen, but she is still able to convey a believable hint of teenage poutiness in her rebellion against her father.
There is more to Erica Whyman's concept and staging of the play, almost none of it as effective as she thinks, though none really getting in Shakespeare's way either.
In a programme note she makes much of her decision to change Mercutio and a few minor figures into female characters.
Actress Charlotte Josephine plays Mercutio as the sort of spiky tomboy who hangs around with the guys (and who, in a typical rom-com, would put on a dress in the final scene and prove to be sweet and feminine). But the gender change really adds nothing to the character or the play.
Nor does director Whyman's conviction that in a modern dress production – in a silly moment the Capulet ball is turned into a rave – all the knife fighting will resonate toward the current real-world epidemic of teenage knife crime.
Few in the secondary cast really register. Andrew French's Friar has an attractive masculine power to back up his moral force – he's the sort of clergyman who would coach the football team in his spare time.
But Ishia Bennison's northern housewife Nurse has too little depth or earthy humour, and the essential emotional bond between her and Juliet isn't there.
Just keep your attention on the central couple, and this Romeo And Juliet will deliver.
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