Writers: John Topliff and Hannah Ellis
Directors: Gina T Frost and Matt Cawson
Reviewer: Stephen M Hornby
Before Juliet is an interesting premise, building a story around Rosaline, the lover that Romeo is infatuated with in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and then bleeding her into the story of the world’s most famous tragic lovers. The resulting play, however, is not entirely successful, wittily playing with what the audience knows one moment and then delivering laboured soap opera style writing the next. When being bold enough to use Shakespeare as the starting point, a play is almost doomed to failure by comparison and though there is some great acting and effective moments, the result is not a complete success.
The play opens with one of many plot changes. This Romeo is not mourning his unrequited love for Rosaline, but rather feeling overwhelmed by her neediness two weeks into a new relationship. His brother Michael Montague is a violent racist, fuelled by his father ceding the Monatgue Mercedes Benz dealership to his hard working employee Kamil Capulet, from Pakistan. Tybalt is an ex-offender working at the dealership and fiercely loyal to the Capulets. Rosaline is presented initially as a high maintenance girlfriend and then as a more and more extreme character, willing to do whatever is required to win the love of Romeo.
Juliet arrives some way into the play as the unintentional love rival to Rosaline not just for Romeo’s affection but also for that of her father. Roslaine’s insertion into the plot does create some fresh dramatic tension as familiar scenes and motivations are re-worked by her presence, but the play might have been more successful realised as a prequel in its own right rather than as re-telling. Some radical adaptations of Romeo and Juliet have been highly successful. Shakespeare’s R &J illuminates the play with the devise of four sixth-form schoolboys performing it as an expression of the emotions and tensions between them.
The re-working has purpose and unlocks the power of the script. This re-writing never really seems to fully justify its own existence. The few scraps of the original text that are used only create a longing for what is absent. Some of the writing struggles to escape cliché and many scenes are over-written making the same point several times. The most successful writing is the scenes between the Monatgue brothers which crackle with conviction.
For all the weakness in the writing, there are some strong lead performances here. Amy Gavin takes the audience on a journey that is entirely credibly played as Rosaline’s actions become more and more unnerving. Elouise Bracewell provides a vivacious and loving Juliet. Dean Gregory is great as Romeo, moving from trapped boyfriend to lovesick lad with ease and sparring brilliantly with his brother, played by Sam Beresford who manages to provide both a comical and chilling Michael. James Oates gives a fierce lion of a Tybalt, ready to spring to attack if those he loves are threatened. When these three clash in a graphic fight scene, they are all very accomplished in making it credible and shocking. Nakib Narrat as Kamil Capulet and Tracy Gabbitas as Elaine Hope are perhaps less well achieved, but Gabbitas in particular gets little of real substance to play with.
The set is made of four sliding black flats, which offers lots of flexibility but also creates real lulls in pace as it’s constantly reset, often compounded by slow starts to scenes. Props are used oddly and unevenly, with breakfast mimed in one scene and then pieces of toast bought in to the next. There just needs to be a convention set for the audience that is followed consistently.
Before Juliet is a better idea than it is a production, but there are some good actors here making the most of the material and the attempt to find a new way into such a familiar story is bold and welcome.
Runs until 22 March 2014