16th Aug, 2018

REVIEW - Romeo & Juliet, RSC, Stratford-on-Avon

Ian Hughes 2nd May, 2018

Romeo & Juliet

RSC, Stratford

THIS is very much a Romeo and Juliet for now.

Director Erica Whyman is perfectly clear as to what she set out to achieve – “I wanted to transpose it to a world as close to our own as possible” – and to “illuminate its freshness” in a bid to click with young theatre-goers of R&J’s own age.

Some may say we’ve been here before on the silver screen with Baz Luhrmann gun-toting Romeo + Juliet, which truly caught the imagination of teenagers on its release in 1996 like no previous Shakespeare adaptation.

But that was more than two decades ago, and Whyman now looks to explore how this 400-year-old play can speak today in multi-cultural Britain, and she has done a fine job.

At the heart are of course the star-crossed lovers themselves. Bally Gill’s Romeo is a pent-up ball of teenage angst hijacked by love who walks a tightrope between vulnerability and violence, struggling to understand and control the testosterone racing round his body. Karen Fishwick’s Juliet has a perfect balance of fragility and focused determination as she sets course to win her prince. Together they exude a newly-discovered sexual electricity in every touch of the fingers, lips and anything else.

This is a production which also puts women centre stage – asking, although not trying to answer anything definitively, what has changed since Shakespeare put quill to parchment.

A number of the roles have been made female (not just played by women), most notably a bolshy and ballsy Mercutio, complete with cod Mockney rapper accent, played with a startling energy by Charlotte Josephine. Elsewhere Ishia Bennison’s no-nonsense straight-talking Nurse gets a starring role and provides most of the laughs.

The production is set on a rather depressing stark rusting steel grey set with matching cube at the centre which serves as everything from balcony to Friar’s cell. It is reflective of that other scourge of current day Britain – knife crime. The characters wield their blades with frightening menace.

In a production geared toward the young, one can expect young people’s music. We are given pounding dance beats, and at one point an entire rock band, but for those without an ear for such music, they will be relived it is far from overplayed.

There will always be purists who prefer Zeffirelli to Luhrmann, and like-wise prefer a period straight-staged R&J.

But while this thought-provoking production will not be for all, it will not just be today’s teenager it successfully speaks to.

Romeo & Juliet runs at the RST until September 21. Visit www.rsc.org.uk for tickets and further details.

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