Writer: William Shakespeare
Music: Philip Pinsky
Director: Tony Cownie
Reviewer: Val Baskott
The Lyceum’s new Romeo and Juliet is recommended for those of us who may not enjoy more traditional elitist Shakespeare productions or were put off by our school experience. The familiar tale of rival powerful families, passionate impulsive young love, misguided help and ultimate tragedy has had many makeovers. Without being modernist, avant-garde, outré, or over-contrived Cownie’s attempt brings to life Shakespeare’s themes and issues with immediacy and relevance to our own times.
Dressed as a uniformed Generalissimo, the Prince of Verona (McDonell) delivers the Prologue high above both families honouring the grave of the lovers. Their families’ reconciliation is the lasting monument to their tragedy.
Issues of class and difference are subtly apparent throughout the play. The rival well-heeled Capulet and Montague youths are shown as duelling cumberbunded Edwardian gents or tennis party rejects. The two families are also distinguished by regional accents, Scots-Irish versus Northern English. A near-Geordie Romeo (Will Featherstone) might offend the purists but his coarser rawness with his friends and quiet gentleness with Juliet is just right. Our everyday experience is of a multicultural Britain, where received English is a minority tongue so why should Shakespearean performance be exempt. Romeo’s aristocratic friend Mercutio (Grant O’Rourke) is a refined Scot in officer’s garb who is aggressively hiding his sexuality. Brilliant, ironically self-deprecating, joshing around almost until his death, O’Rourke’s performance is outstanding. In contrast the cameo rôle Peter (McNicoll), Capulet manservant, as a deliberate attempt at comic relief is Weegie and archetypically camp.
The play is rich in strong performance, Liam Brennan’s powerful Capulet switches from doting to tyrannical father in an instant. Images of today’s forced marriages and their tragic outcomes spring to mind. His remorse and grief stricken lament over the dead is heartfelt. Sean Murray’s Friar Lawrence is a firmly principled man whose good intentions were subverted by chance and Alexandra Mathie’s Nurse, too often comically overplayed, is funny, sometimes foolish but always supportive, wanting the best for Juliet, her surrogate daughter. Surrounded by such craft the young lovers could be outclassed but Featherstone’s passionate, sometimes angry Romeo and Kirsty Mackay’s maturing loving Juliet are right with each other and do justice to the rôles. Minor performance quibbles are a Tybalt (Finnerty) that is sometimes too angry to be audible, and a Paris (Berish) who is sometimes unconvincing as Juliet’s suitor.
Neil Murray’s set, dominant dark marbled buildings partly framed in a fractured rectangle, reinforces the message of extreme control, parental and State, that constrains the young lovers and emphasises the tensions that lead to their deaths. A central simple dais becomes a focus for key events in the action; by turns circled by duellers, by the dancing Capulets, it becomes Juliet’s deathbed, the lovers’ tomb and their final memorial. The action is seamless without distracting scene shifts and the several fights well directed (Short). The whole play is visually satisfying, enhanced by an intelligent use of light (Town) to complement action, mood and focus. The riveting choreography (Laws) for the Edwardian Capulets’ ball suggests control and confrontation and is well matched to Philip Pinsky’s potent pasodoble-cum-pavane. His haunting theme for the lovers anticipates the inevitable tragedy. A sparkling vibrant performance from Cownie and the Company, highly recommended.