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Romeo and Juliet review at Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon – ‘fresh and engaging’

Bally Gill and Karen Fishwick in Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Photo: Topher McGrillis/RSC Bally Gill and Karen Fishwick in Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Photo: Topher McGrillis/RSC

The youthful energy that powers Romeo and Juliet all too often proves elusive. The teenage heat and the rapid escalation from passion to tragedy are not easy things to pin down.

Erica Whyman’s fresh, engaging production is more successful them most in this respect. It benefits from two hugely appealing performances from Karen Fishwick and Bally Gill as the star-crossed lovers. Together they convey the blinkered giddiness of the young couple’s infatuation, the arrow-slit of adolescence in which tomorrow morning seems an age away and no adult can possibly understand the depth of your pain.

Fishwick is an extremely winning Juliet, plausible as a 14 year old, warm-natured but also petulant and easily frustrated when things don’t happen as quickly as she would like. Gill has charm and swagger, but there’s a softness to him too. They have a good rapport and the balcony scene, where they make endless excuses not to part from one another, is very entertainingly staged. But, as is often the case, the relationships between the other characters are just as interesting, if not more so.

Charlotte Josephine plays Mercutio as someone alert to her position as a woman among men. Her larger-than-life personality stems from this in some ways. One minute she’s tormenting Juliet’s Nurse (Ishia Bennison) with exaggerated groin thrusts, the next she’s affecting a high-pitched ‘lady’ voice. She squares off against Raphael Sowole’s imposing Tybalt, confident she can best him, and when she won’t back down, sets the whole sorry mess in motion.

 

The most unsettling scene, though, takes place between Michael Hodgson’s Capulet and Juliet. Hodgson (so unnerving as the Porter in Polly Findlay’s Macbeth) shakes her by the arm and spits with fury at what he perceives to be her transgressions, his head forever flicking away from her as if he’s disgusted. Given his volatility it’s understandable why she might seek warmth and solace elsewhere.

Tom Piper’s versatile set takes the form of an oxidised cube which becomes first balcony, then Friar’s cell, and finally a tomb. The cast wear contemporary outfits, mostly in shades of black and grey, accessorised by daggers and scabbards.

From its opening moments, when talk of the taking of maidenheads comes to sound like lads’ banter, Whyman’s production makes clear the differing pressures placed on the title characters. Juliet is punished for her behaviour. Romeo frets about being perceived as effeminate. Poor Rosalind is forgotten in the blink of an eye.

There are a few lulls in pacing – the scenes with Friar Lawrence drag a bit – and the Capulet ball, with its iffy dancing, doesn’t quite deliver, though it’s very prettily lit. Whyman’s production is, however, one of emotional and narrative clarity. It’s refreshing and accessible. It wires the text into our world.

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Verdict
Fresh, engaging and appealingly performed production of Shakespeare’s tale of doomed love
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