Welcome to the Romeo and Juliet trendy infusion. The contemporary spin on the ever-tragic teenage love story is a fun and light-hearted adaptation of the stilted and traditional original, until it’s not, and the same devastating fate befalls a large chunk of the cast. However, The Royal Shakespeare Company really gets this one right.
The focus isn’t on Shakespeare’s words, it’s on the spaces in between, the movements, the sighs, of which Romeo has a fair funny few. The play is refreshed with a diverse cast. A suggestion of more than brotherly admiration between Benvolio, who is played by the comically well-timed Josh Finan, a new face of the company, and Romeo, the charmingly expressive Bally Gill, adds in new generational relevance. And an integration of swift and effective physical theatre that would have made the play a triumph even without such an eye-catching troupe modernises the performance.
The story is remodelled. The focus pulls away from the love between Romeo and Juliet and instead becomes further aligned with spoilt children experiencing an instant infatuation with some pretty member of the opposite sex they see at a party/raunchy synchronised dance disco. Everyone knows the story; Romeo begins with repeating his delight for the beautiful Rosaline, who is disappointingly again unseen, but then falls for the enemy’s chaste daughter. Despair and tragedy ensues. However, this performance reminds us of the naivety and young age of the iconic characters. The audience is encouraged to laugh when Juliet’s father, Capulet, believes maybe one or two more years is sufficient to wait for his beautiful daughter to marry the dashing Paris. Because 13 is too young, and, of course, 15 is far more appropriate. Similarly, Juliet (Karen Fishwick) is simply a babbling teenage girl in love, rambling to Romeo on her bedroom balcony. It is a sweet, but obvious, first love. Gill and Fishwick succeed in making their characters far more intriguing than their relationship.
Romeo’s gang litters the stage with sexual innuendos. The gender-bent Mercutio, Charlotte Josephine, hogs the stage with her aggressive and hilarious suggestive moves towards the nanny and her male compatriots. She is exemplary of how the choreography of this adaptation steals away from the endlessly repeated Elizabethan words. No character stays still. They jump. They joust. They crouch and run. They are always moving in a competition to steal the attention. The stage lights work at extra speed to keep up and they do it so well.
The play appears to take place in a parallel dystopian steel world, and it works. The set is minimal but endlessly imaginative. It is out of place in our own world and yet any world would seem to fit in it. I would both not be surprised if Romeo were to pull out a phone or if Juliet took a horse and carriage to a party. Shakespeare has almost been removed, hidden at the back.
This is the new Shakespeare. There are so many voices, so many dialects, so many skin colours, that anyone can look at this and see themselves reflected back (hopefully not in the character’s irrational actions but in the actor’s own image). It is a delightfully natural change which I hope becomes the new normal.
Romeo and Juliet is playing at The Barbican until 19 January 2019. For more information and tickets, click here.