Monday 31 December 2018

Romeo and Juliet at the Barbican, or, A Bland Updating

Note: A belated review of the performance on Thursday 20th December 2018.

This is a show that feels like it is trying a little too hard to be down with the kids. It updates the action to a bland modern setting which, ultimately, lacks dramatic conviction. The ensemble too often seem to be struggling with the language. There are occasional flashes of inspiration but overall it lacks punch.

The first significant problem is Tom Piper's minimalist set - metal walls at the back and a single cube room in the middle which has to double as far too many different places. Apart from a bizarre moss back curtain for the Lawrence's cell scenes there's no sense of contrast in wealth or location to reflect anything in the text. Frequently members of the cast have to rotate the cube or move the very occasional piece of furniture or prop in a way that doesn't fit with their character. The cover image of the programme suggests there might have been a plan of setting it in a gritty urban cityscape, but the set pretty completely fails to realise this - that cover image of the lovers embracing is far more evocative of a world than pretty much anything in the visuals of the actual production.

This was my first encounter with the work of director Erica Whyman. There are moments of perception - the idea of Benvolio (a generally strong Josh Finan) being in love with Romeo, or Juliet's last embrace with her mother - but these are not sufficiently held on to through the whole performance. The show misses that ability to build threads of characterisation that run through the evening to make for the best complete performances - for example there is nothing in this production to lend substance to the Nurse's lamentation that Tybalt was her best friend.

There are also some tiresome directorial ticks. Flower destruction to indicate strong emotion seems to be in at the moment (I blame the overrated Ivo van Hove). It's linked here to a particularly baffling confusion about where two consecutive scenes are taking place, and undermines rather than reinforces Juliet's trauma. In the later stages, whenever ghosts are mentioned, they start appearing, usually wandering rather aimlessly about the bare stage, and often not directly in sight of the characters who think they are seeing them. It feels ill thought out and would be better cut.

The acting is a mixed bag. Most serious are weaknesses in textual delivery and projection most unusual in an RSC ensemble. Mariam Haque's Lady Capulet is particularly problematic delivering every word slowly and overemphatically. Charlotte Josephine's Mercutio occasionally rises to the challenge in the latter stages of the Queen Mab speech, but overall lacks presence - this is a character who ought to command the attention every time she's on stage, and Josephine I'm afraid doesn't manage this.

Partial redemption comes from Bally Gill's Romeo and, particularly Karen Fishwick's Juliet. Both of them display a feel for the language which most of the rest of the ensemble struggle to find. There are some lovely occasions where they linger on a phrase to lodge it in the listener's mind - Fishwick's sudden thought as she questions Romeo's early ardor - "I should have been more strange" or the pause after her declaration that she won't marry yet and then it shall be Romeo - though sadly Haque's weak performance and Whyman's shortcomings as a director make less of this than they could. Both leads have an energy which lifts the evening whenever they're on stage, and if they can't quite disguise the weaknesses in the text this is more the fault of the production, direction and surrounding ensemble than them.

I had to study this text in school which I think may be the reason that I've never been to see it staged until now. I'd forgotten how many of the lines have entered the dictionary of quotations - and one of the other problems is that much of the text apart from those lines chunters on in a rather nondescript way. As the evening went on I found myself thinking of Melly Still's RSC Cymbeline - another play with a plot that creaks - but Still and her ensemble transcended those problems. Whyman still has things to learn. The leads are giving performances of interest, otherwise I'm afraid this is missable.

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