REVIEW: Vibrant and invigorating Romeo and Juliet at the RSC

Karen Fishwick and Bally Gill as Juliet and Romeo. Picture: Topher McGrillis
Karen Fishwick and Bally Gill as Juliet and Romeo. Picture: Topher McGrillis

Peter Ormerod reviews Romeo and Juliet, presented by the RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

There were times during this production when it felt like a different theatre company had taken over the old building. The stage gloried in a rich array of accents and appearances; there was a rawness rarely found at the RSC. The programme tells where the cast were trained: the usual mainstays of RADA, LAMDA and Guildhall are absent, and instead we have a Juliet who graduated from Motherwell College, a Lady Montague from Kent University, other actors with scant theatrical credits, and assorted young people from nearby comprehensive schools. The result is one of the most invigorating shows on the RSC's main stage for years.

Charlotte Josephine and Josh Finan as Mercutio and Benvolio

Charlotte Josephine and Josh Finan as Mercutio and Benvolio

There will be prettier productions this year, but few more beautiful. There will be more polished efforts, but few more radiant. It's a little rough around the edges in places, but there's life in that roughness. The RSC, great institution that it is, often plays it too safe, too establishment; there is undoubted quality but a tendency to a sort of sterility. So Erica Whyman's direction and casting here feels not so much like a breath of fresh air as a gale-force blast.

It begins with a prologue intoned in chaotic and cacophonous style by the entire cast, before settling into a more familiar rhythm. But the Verona depicted here is anything but fair: it is rendered instead as Brutalist scene of urban decay and violence. Juliet's balcony is not a thing of elegance, but a hulking metallic block. There is occasional respite when strings of stars appear, and when a verdant backdrop is revealed, but for the most part this is a distinctly unlovely environment, which grows ever more gloomy towards the play's end.

Against this background, the vibrancy of the performances shines all the brighter. Each character is brought to colourful and distinctive life: Josh Finan is a likeable and warm Benvolio, while Ishia Bennison excels as the blowsy Nurse, rich in laughter, love and pomposity. Charlotte Josephine meanwhile makes for an extraordinary Mercutio, putting in a performance of remarkable physicality and searing speech. Mercutio's death is a genuinely sad moment, with the sense being given of a force of nature being snuffed out, pointlessly. There is the sense throughout that these are all misfits in some way, all perhaps drawn to each other as a result.

The leads complement all this commendably. Bally Gill's Romeo is an awkward adolescent, vacillating between overconfidence and insecurity, while Karen Fishwick is an endearingly scrappy Juliet; they are convincing as a couple and play their scenes together with a touching bite. Even smaller parts, like Peter (Raif Clarke), give the appearance of having been thought through with depth and insight, while Michael Hodgson - the undoubted star of the current production of Macbeth, in which he plays the porter - carries eeriness, threat and enigma as Capulet. He possesses an inherent watchability as an actor; were he not surrounded here by such striking performances, he'd be the best thing about this, too.

Nima Taleghani, Josh Finan as Raphael Sowole as Abraham, Benvolio and Tybalt. Picture: Topher McGrillis

Nima Taleghani, Josh Finan as Raphael Sowole as Abraham, Benvolio and Tybalt. Picture: Topher McGrillis

Whyman is to be applauded for not cluttering the production with gimmickry and not emphasising any theme too blatantly. What the show does lack though is a real sense of savagery or malevolence or hatred. The fights are little restrained; not much seems to really hurt. It is also hard to distinguish Capulets from Montagues; perhaps the point being made is that both are alike in their dignity, in the sense that neither has any, and that distinctions are therefore irrelevant. This may be theoretically interesting, but it does draw some of the tension from the play. The pacy and fizzy style of delivery also means some the poetry is missed, although the meaning is always clear.

But these flaws are preferable any day to those that have bedevilled other recent productions. This Romeo and Juliet marks what is hopefully the first step in a much-needed new direction for the RSC, at least on its main stage: away from conventionality and respectability and towards something bolder and braver, reflecting not only how Britain looks but how it sounds. It is telling that the outstanding productions of recent years have been those characterised by their daring, while keeping all that the RSC does well. These two lovers may be doomed, but on this evidence, the RSC's future is full of promise.

Ishia Bennison as Nurse and Karen Fishwick as Juliet. Picture: Topher McGrillis

Ishia Bennison as Nurse and Karen Fishwick as Juliet. Picture: Topher McGrillis

The Romeo and Juliet company. Picture: Topher McGrillis

The Romeo and Juliet company. Picture: Topher McGrillis

Bally Gill and Karen Fishwick as Romeo and Juliet. Picture: Topher McGrillis

Bally Gill and Karen Fishwick as Romeo and Juliet. Picture: Topher McGrillis

Andrew French as Friar Laurence. Picture: Topher McGrillis

Andrew French as Friar Laurence. Picture: Topher McGrillis