Author: William Shakespeare
Director: Robert Icke
Reviewer: Ann Bawtree
The academic approach to Shakespeare maintains that his plays cannot be enjoyed to the full unless the text is well studied, learnt, worked over and thoroughly pulled to pieces first. There is still many a playgoer who would not dream of attending a production without at least reading through the script beforehand. However a large part of the general population will happily go to see “Romeo and Juliet” knowing little more than that the play is a story of young love that does not end happily ever after. How to cater for this majority?
One way would be to speak the lines with slow and careful articulation, labouring to make every syllable audible, in which case the play would take about five hours and, in the comfortable seats of the Nuffield, most of the audience would be asleep. The other way is to allow the torrents of speech to flow, as did the Headlong Theatre Company, and let the actions speak the plot.
Fortunately the cast’s acting is very good and the characters are painted loud and clear. In the first half it is hard to find sympathy for the silly boys who pick fights over nothing, just as we unfortunately read of in the papers to this day. Romeo is a callow youth, at first head over heels in love with one young woman and next day falling for what can only be described as a slip of a girl and planning to abduct her from her father’s house. In this century he would be up before the courts, but in earlier days when life was short you had to grow up quickly and grab what came your way.
The set, by Helen Goddard, is sparse but adaptable. At the back of the stage two side staircases lead up to a platform in a heavy frame. Some scenes take place up there, almost simultaneously with those on the main stage. When not in use it becomes a huge digital clock marking the passage of time. This is sometimes broken into by flashback scenes, heralded by loud explosions and brilliant lights, the purpose of which remained largely a mystery. Something subtle was going on there. Possibly some explanatory note in the programme would have helped, but if something needs explaining maybe it should not be done.
In the second half it is easier to get a grip on the characters. Romeo (Daniel Boyd) turns out to be a young man of some honour and is believable as Juliet’s soul mate. Juliet (Catrin Stewart) captures the characteristics of a very young girl caught between adolescence and adulthood, and can change from delightful young woman to spoilt child in an instant and still make us love her. She suffers from a despotic father, Capulet, played by Keith Bartlett, whose apoplectic rage at his daughter’s disobedience makes one fear for his blood pressure. He so misunderstands her as to be completely taken in by her later apparent complicity. His wife, Caroline Faber, is so frightened of him she cannot be a proper mother to Juliet whilst the excellent Brigid Zengeni as the Nurse portrays the often emotionally precarious relationship of a childminder and her charge. These portrayals of character are what make Shakespeare so relevant to life in any century, more so than any change to modern dress or use of rock music.