Set in Temple Church, in the isolated medieval splendour of the area between Fleet Street and Embankment, Antic Disposition’s Romeo and Juliet is seen in the round, underneath the twelfth-century dome. One of the first questions is whether the space is somehow incorporated in the play or whether it becomes merely a gimmick, if indeed an elaborate one (visitors are but sometimes allowed in the church).
The realisation that churches are immensely theatrical spaces comes immediately in the first scene, when the feud between the two families is played in the style of a mafia gathering. Visually, this works very well. On the downside, it made me hope for the whole show to be in 1930s guise, yet what follows does not seem to have a clear place in time and location (Benvolio, for instance, is in shorts and sneakers most of the time).
The stage, like a vacant deathbed foreshadowing what the audience knows is coming, is surrounded by actual graves of knights, stone hand on sword. Shakespeare’s tragedy is strewn with duels by the dagger, and this subtle echo is one of the ways in which the location fortifies the piece. There is a strong sense of choreography (by Richard Jones) throughout, and the ball scene and fights are done with flair. A rather poised mode of delivery keeps up the pace but sometimes the acoustics of the dome require softer, slower speaking, especially when actors turn their back.
Dylan Kennedy as Romeo and Bryony Tebbutt as Juliet find themselves in good company, while Jack Joseph stands out both as Tybalt and Friar John. The direction (Ben Horslen and John Risebero) and treatment of the text veers from heightened to comic, especially when some of Shakespeare’s puns are highlighted for maximum effect – not always does the gesturing add to the power of the wordplay, however, and a clearer choice could have been made as to how to approach this well-known play.
Intelligent lighting design by Tom Boucher creates a space full of character, while specially composed music by James Burrows marks scene changes as well as moments of emotional turmoil. While fitting to the mood, the use of sound at some point becomes slightly forced, as if the audience needs to be reminded what is happening on stage.
Visually highly accomplished and imbued with strong physicality, this rendition of the famous tragedy is simply well done and has both flaws and strengths induced by its uncommon setting.
Romeo and Juliet plays at Temple Church until 7 September. For more information and tickets, visit the Antic Disposition website.
Photo by Scott Rylander