Monday, April 4, 2016

Romeo and Juliet - Bell Shakespeare

Review by John Lombard

While this is the story of doomed Romeo and Juliet - and that can hardly be a spoiler since the prologue tells us the pair will meet a sticky end - it is really the tragedy of Paris (Michael Gupta). Paris is Juliet's betrothed, the family friend who is unaware that Juliet has made a secret marriage to the scion of her clan's rival family. But Paris is far from repulsive: he's sensitive, passionate, handsome, and he seems to be completely devoted to Juliet. Juliet could have been very happy with him - if not for Romeo. But Juliet is 13, and at just the right age to risk her life for an intense infatuation.

Director Peter Evans' production of this well-loved classic is alive to the absurdity of Romeo and Juliet's spring romance. Rather than playing this as a passionate and destined love match, there is a wry humour at how fickle this hook-up feels  At the start of the play Romeo is sick with love to the point where his friends want him to just shut up about this girl who has bewitched him. But the girl who has captivated him is not Juliet but instead the unseen Rosaline. Juliet, far from his eternal mate, is fact his rebound. When within 24 hours they have sprinted from first flirtation to courtship to secret marriage, we feel the absurdity of what is happening - but we also realise that this madness is deeply truthful, because love really does make people ridiculous - especially when hormones are at fever pitch.

But despite the play's romantic reputation, this is equally a play about gang violence, with brawls between bravos from the warring Montagues and Capulets causing civic disturbance in Verona. Despite crackdowns from the authorities the young hotheads keep the fight going, eager to give and respond to insults (thumb-biting is particularly unforgivable). Anna Cordingley's Renaissance era costumes - a striking period departure for the relentlessly modernising Bell Shakespeare - deck the Montagues in cool blue and the Capulets in fiery red, a shorthand both for allegiances and for the temperaments of these two families. The famous love scenes are there (and a surprisingly high count of dick jokes), but there are also engaging and well-choreographed fights, in particular the artful duel between canny Mercutio and sword virtuoso Tybalt. The youthful energy even extends to the scene transitions, with actors bolting on and off with a pace that matches Romeo and Juliet's whirlwind romance.

Alex Williams as Romeo has wit and energy, conquering Juliet with his complete confidence and sense of purpose. The character is rash - his reaction to potential banishment is semi-hysterical - but Williams makes him likeable and sympathetic. As his Juliet, Kelly Paterniti exudes sweetness and straightforwardness, but as the play goes on has the opportunity for some moments of blood-curdling horror, in particular one monologue where she imagines what it would be like to be trapped within the family tomb. Her character is revealed by her domineering, horny and violent father Lord Capulet (Justin Stuart Cotta): stifling home life under this martinet makes wild rebellion more plausible.

But for a titular tragedy, the play is often dominated by its comic relief. Michelle Doake as Juliet's dotty, verbose, bawdy nurse gives us a performance as recognisable as it is ridiculous. But Damien Strouthos as the nonsense-spouting but resourceful Mercutio almost inevitably steals the audience's affection away from the title characters with in a resourceful and manly interpretation of the character. Fortunately Romeo has a little of his own lustre and is not smothered as Claudio is by Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing.  But even so: Juliet may have Romeo's heart, but Mercutio has the audience's.

Red vs. blue, light vs. dark, sex vs. death - this is a production of contrasts, with robust and ribald comedy paving the way for closing tragedy. For every sex joke there is a creepy moment, Mercutio's frippery giving way to a ghoulish, lamp-lit climax. Romeo and Juliet are the victims of their own reputation, dead lovers exhumed with such frequency that that they have become as dusty as a forgotten grave (cruelly, schools love to traumatise students with the hard labour of reading the text, when it only truly shares its delights in live performance). The necromancers at Bell Shakespeare have brought a dead classic to vivid life, exposing the freshness and vitality that was always buried just beneath the surface.