Saturday, March 3, 2012

Romeo and Juliet (Headlong Thetre Company) Review

Romeo and Juliet
(Tour - The Nuffield Theatre, Southampton)

Last week I went to see one of the most frequently performed plays by William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, at the Nuffield Theatre and stayed behined to hear a post-show talk on it. So why did I bother going to see this. Basically, I am a fan of William Shakespeare. Not a fan who would shout from the rooftops about it and tell you the meaning of every word he writes, but someone who takes his words as a second language and appreciate them. How that language is used interests me, and I love to see a different and interesting interpretation of a play. My second favourite Shakespeare director would be Rupert Goold, because he has recently given an interesting and vibrant edge to the plays lately. I saw his production of  'Soviet' Macbeth on TV, and I thought his hellish Romeo and Juliet in 2009 and last years The Merchant of Venice (or Las Vegas) were both great productions. He is also Artistic Director of Headlong Theatre Company, and I did see the 2010 revival of their production, Enron, at the Chichester Festival Theatre. The play was directed by Goold himself, and deserved the praise it received in Britain. Therefore, their latest production, Romeo and Juliet, intrigued me and I expected Goold to have influenced this production. I was given a slice of what to expect from this paragraph on a notice about the company in the theatre foyer.
Headlong is interested in theatre that gives provocative questions of the world we live in today in the most vibrant and theatrical forms we can imagine
For the most part I was not disappointed. The company decided to address the theme of fate, by showing how the final tragedy could have been avoided. To start with the plays setting was changed to modern times, in order to ground it in the present. This was helpful because there were projections of a digital clock ticking away in the background, which helped establish the time during a time span of up to 6 days. At certain points in the story the play would first show what could have happened. Moments later the audience would be blinded by a light and afterwards the scene is shown as it was written by Shakespeare. Such moments include Romeo and Juliet's first meeting, Mercutio harassing the Nurse, and when Romeo did not receive the letter telling him about Juliet's faked death. It was certainly disorientating being blinded by a lot of lights, but the point was put across well.

What drives these alternating scenes are the changes to the text. They do not change the play to the point at which its unrecognizable, but they do take out chunks from the text. This helps because with the production going back and forth during scenes the cuts keeps it moving along. The cuts also allow the play to remain true to the production's objective of asking questions about fate In particular the prologue was cut, and in the post show discussion we were told that it was a spoiler alert for what will come in the end. By taking out the prologue the play was able to discuss fate without the audience having a predetermined idea of the final outcome.

However I struggle to see how the play asks provocative questions of the world we live in, despite the modern setting. Fate can be applied to anywhere and any moment in time and we can only look back in time and say 'what if?'. Neither does the production use the theme all the way through the play. The production followed the story of the play right to the end, and the alternating scenes felt like isolated moments. I suppose there is no way to avoid the traditional ending, but  I did wonder whether the production could have been braver and stuck to their questions and exploration of fate in this play.

Because of the modern setting the actors did tone down their characters, with the help of the cuts, from men in Elizabethan clothes, to modern, everyday people in an urban setting. Benvolio was portrayed as an overweight young man who hangs around a burger stand, whilst Friar Laurence did his first speech about plants as part of a lecture. I must give plaudits to Keith Bartlett, who I saw during Michael Boyd's eight play Histories Cycle. Though Romeo and Juliet must have been a smaller weight on his shoulders, he gave a firm performance as Capulet. He plays the character as the man of the house with a no-nonsense attitude, especially when Juliet begs not to marry Paris, yet easily turns into a foolish old man, such as the party scene where he carries on when everyone has already left.

However, Daniel Boyd and Catrin Stewart did not seem convincing as the adolescent Romeo and Juliet. At first I liked how Daniel Boyd started off enthusiastically telling Benvolio about his love for Rosaline, instead of moping around as described in the text, which had also been taken out. Catrin also played Juliet with great passion as a girl who is experiencing love for the first time. Yet both the actors' energetic characters seemed to last for most of the play, which soon got tiresome. They did not even show any grief for the death of Tybalt. Their understanding of Romeo and Juliet almost felt one-dimensional.

The set is simplistic with a platform at the back behined a screen, which is used to display the digital clock before being raised to reveal the platform. Underneath the platform there are two sliding walls which are used as an entrance, to bring on a bed, and to show more than one scene simultaneously. The bed is almost used as an emblem in the play, as it is used in scenes other than those between the lovers. The company estalished the scenes well. During the party the action takes place outside in what looks like the back alley. Lights can be seen beyond the open sliding walls, whilst the sound of music is heard inside. On the stairs to the platform people are seeing kissing and having a smoke. The scenes never feel static. The balcony scene was taken out to be replaced by a bedroom scene to which Romeo looks in from the audience, before entering the room. With the platform the balcony scene could have been kept in and I would have preferred it.

This production looked at the play in a different light, which was both interesting and engaging. Whether this is relevant today is another matter, but it is worth seeing. The company also went to great lengths to establish the modern setting, which was enjoyable. However the leading actors did not impress me as the two main elements of the play, the lovers. This is good enough to see at a Bargain.

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