Romeo and Juliet review at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield – ‘Outstanding performances by a youthful cast’
For the Crucible’s autumn season opener, Jonathan Humphreys’ freshly minted production frames Shakespeare’s “fair Verona” in a desolate 1980s post-Soviet era community, possibly the former Yugoslavia, where ruling families are embroiled in some form of dodgy mafia rivalry and dubious backwardness prevails when it comes to arranging inter-tribal marriages.
There’s nothing especially noble or “alike in dignity” about these charmless Ruritanian Montagues and Capulets, especially Michael Hodgson’s ferocious Capulet patriarch who thinks nothing of slapping and beating teenage Juliet when she eventually dares to defy ancient family grudges by marrying Romeo. Hannah Clark’s spare chipboard and corrugated iron set design encapsulates their remote, inward-looking tumbleweed existence and the costumes mostly reek of bad-taste 1980s drabness.
Gradually the play itself takes over as the concept fades to grey: and yet it’s not all young star-crossed lovers facing brutal parents and impending mutual doom. Humphreys finds some nice humorous and human touches in the prevailing love-hate theme before the grim finality of the drama eventually kicks in. Joshua Miles as the Capulet’s weak-kneed servant, for instance, stays on the right side of camp caricature. Mercutio’s laddishness and the casting of a woman as the Friar give a jolt to the fixed gender roles played out in the story. And Rachel Lumberg’s loud chatterbox of a Nurse is both funny and deadly serious once the loving couple step into the danger zone and she turns into Juliet’s surrogate mother.
There are lots of sparky fireworks and flashy lighting effects, too, when the young lovers’ eyes first collide across a crowded dance floor. And, apart from anything else, some pretty smart casting of the two lead roles gives the entire production a vitality boost. Considering they are both making their Shakespeare debuts, between them Morfydd Clark and Freddie Fox radiate so much adolescent passion as the lovers that they both seem to physically glow with hormonal imbalance.
Aside from his rolled-up shirtsleeves and boyish mop of blonde hair, in terms of near-perfect diction, fluent physicality, magnetic stage presence and ardently expressive articulation of verse, Fox’s passionate Romeo sometimes looks and sounds almost like a throwback to a long-gone romantic era of acting. He may be a touch too posh-sounding for the tough world suggested by the production, but at just about every turn, Fox lifts the action and manages to convey a rare sense of heightened theatricality.
As sexual desire, erotic attachment and out-of-control emotions simmer and then boil over, Clark’s bright young Juliet is equally matched: vulnerable at first and yet completely taking charge of her own tragic destiny in the second act when she really comes alive and a story of lost innocence ratchets up into the inevitable tale of woe.