During the most iconic scene in the Gate Theatre’s production of Romeo and Juliet, an affable Romeo (Fra Fee) paces excitedly through the seating aisles, casting his eyes towards a secluded balcony. We turn our heads to see him sociably confide in members of the audience an affection that spells itself out in astronomy: “Two of the fairest stars in heaven”, having business elsewhere, request Juliet (Lauren Coe) to “entreat her eyes / To twinkle in their spheres till they return”. Lovably, Romeo’s poetic appeals, in Fee’s hopefulness, seem to well the hearts of those surrounding him.
The complexity of director Wayne Jordan’s rich and colourful staging is that it conveys the hearts of not just the lovers but the un-loved. In Verona, a town ruled by sparing families Capulet and Montague, cynicism festers below the surface. If Lady Capulet (Natalie Radmall-Quirke) appears cruel, it’s likely a patriarchal culture of arranged and loveless marriages has made her bitter, and that the untamable Tybalt (Ian Toner) would be an outlet for her desire. When a drunken and confused Prince (Philip Judge) taps on the shoulder of likeable Benvolio (Gavin Fullam), it’s with suggestible lust. Mercutio’s spiral shows displacement in Tadgh Murphy’s wild performance. Even the Nurse (Ruth McGill) is distant from the coddling of past interpretations.
The action plays out on Ciarán O’Melia’s set, whose minimalist designs are often most conductive to bodies and movement, leaving scenic art sparing. However, the risk here on an architectonic design pays off; a wood-grained set kindly complements Sinéad Wallace’s holy lighting, and shifts to carve out a balcony, a tomb and a ballroom. Catherine Fay’s bright costumes fashion the Capulet ball as a woodland rave, detailing character traits in animal imagery (a snake sewn onto a dress indicative of Lady Capulet’s viciousness, mad Mercutio swinging a fox’s tail, Juliet’s mask an innocent doe). Emma Martin’s choreography excitably sends ensemble members spinning, while Tom Lane’s original compositions, when sung, arrest the action with haunting harmonies.
The transition from vibrant beginnings into a darker second half is well-managed thanks to some stakes-raising performances. You wouldn’t suspect a man of the cloth to raise his hand, but Mark Lambert’s judicious turn as Friar Laurence startlingly smacks Romeo out of hysterics and back to reality. Lord Capulet has so much more to lose this time around, his threatened pride and manhood manifesting violently in Simon O’Gorman’s fierce performance. Sculptural but sensible, Radmall-Quirke is powerfully self-possessed as Lady Capulet.
In a staging that braves stylish departures, it’s appropriate that Juliet is also not as dutiful. Coe’s intelligible turn has the young lover call everything into question, from Romeo’s purplish declarations of affection to a culture of derogatory symbols that keep him afar. In Jordan’s staging, that world feels more plagued than ever, where characters’ repressed sexualities and happiness make for a mournful waltz under a glittery disco ball.
A cosmic coda sees the lovers follow each other into death and repeat their exchange of vows. It reminds us of the destiny of Romeo and Juliet, playing across centuries, an eternal cycle of thwarted love. Rather than accepting such realities as “star-crossed”, this Gate production feels determined to make societal complacency and conservatism accountable, with a refrain that politically resounds, “O, wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?”
Romeo and Juliet is playing at Gate Theatre, Dublin until 16 May. For tickets and more information, see the Gate Theatre website. Photo by Pat Redmond.