By Carole Di Tosti . . .
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Romeo and Juliet, employing renowned choreographer and director Matthew Bourne’s interpretation, is not to be missed. Currently, it is streaming on BroadwayHD. Though initially it may be surprising, the production, directed by Erica Whyman, draws one in and compels one to stay riveted until the conclusion, even though one is familiar with the tragic events of the star-crossed lovers.
The cast is one of the most multiculturally diverse and gender fluid that I have seen in recent years. Accents are recognizable from every part of the UK. After about five minutes into the presentation, one becomes too engrossed by the exceptional performances to be distracted that Mercutio is performed by the superb Charlotte Josephine and Beth Cordingly portrays Prince Escalus, who commands the punishments and bans Romeo from Verona after he fights Tybalt.
Every part of this production gives its attention to youthful vigor and vibrant enthusiasm and joy, until the stakes rocket upward after Tybalt and Mercutio are killed. In modern day dress with an equally modern setting, the teens are dressed in hoodies, sweatshirts, leggings and Doc Martens. The adults are in a fusion of styles, some of the males in suits, others in tunics, the women in suits and dresses. Altogether, the emphasis mirrors a trendy, youthful and dangerous Romeo and Juliet, absent a stogey bow to the Bard. Importantly, this production serves as a recognition of the timelessness of Shakespeare’s themes and highlights that then is and always will be, now.
Whyman mesmerizes with brash, bold action scenes (the street brawl in the beginning, the dancing at the Capulet’s party, the duels delivered as street fighting with knives between Tybalt and Mercutio and Romeo and Tybalt). The driving force of the hatred between the Capulets and Montagues is expressed with hand-to-hand combat with knives, making for a visceral and raw element of the violence that vibrates with causation and eventual karmic blowback. As the ironies of hatred and love sift the youthful couple, and yield them up to fate’s destruction, their violent, tragic end expiates the bloodletting that has gone before. Death brings together the ancient families whose sorrow for their children insures the end of their blood lust tradition.
Strongest are the performances of Bally Gill’s Romeo who is typically modern in his swagger and boast among his friends and adorably swooning in his love for Juliet. Karen Fishwick as Juliet is empowered and headstrong. With Romeo and her counselor Nurse (the fine Ishia Bennison) she establishes her determination to love the hated, yet she is appropriately heartbroken and duplicitous with her father the elder Capulet (the amazing Michael Hodgson). The intimate love scenes between Fishwick and Gill are all the more poignant because of the menace of fate (in the form of the ghosts of Tybalt and Mercutio) that drives them forward to their irrevocable doom.
The superb Andrew French’s Friar Lawrence, who delivers the wisdom of great counsel throughout, is overcome by fate and karma’s call for the final vengeance upon both families. In this production Whyman has the ghosts of the menacing Tybalt and Mercurio seeking vengeance or returning karma, whichever you prefer. Both appear/disappear intermittently after Romeo is banished and they haunt the landscape during Romeo’s death scene followed by Juliet’s suicide. The theme that blood begets blood and violence never can be answered except with violence is made stronger with the presence of these two ghostly characters in the tomb with Romeo and Juliet.
The creative team has added appropriate lighting, music and sound design which portends the action to come. The setting, a large box-like structure that revolves, is accessed via ladders and ramps and serves in various measures as the Capulet tomb, the square where Tybalt and Mercutio fight, Juliet’s bedroom and balcony, the backdrop of Friar Lawrence’s garden, and more. It is functional and suggestive in its dark minimalism.
Not distracted by the spectacle of costumes or intricate, opulent sets, one devotes attention to the performances, the themes, the metaphors, poetry and ironies of the language in this energetic production that flies to its thematic bullseye which affirms the imperative: we must live our lives with Grace and forgiveness to stave off brutal tragedy.
Whyman’s fine choices serve her youthful vision and reinforce the actors’ performances which shine. Bravo to the creative team, cast and director for this trenchant and innovative Romeo and Juliet. See it streaming on BroadwayHD at https://www.broadwayhd.com/