Fresh telling of timeless tale

Star-cross'd lovers: Juliet (Mariah Gale) and her Romeo (Sam Troughton) Pictures: Ellie Kurttz.

Romeo and Juliet

RSC Courtyard Theatre

 ****

SHAKESPEARE'S tale of his star-cross'd lovers was one of the most popular plays in his time and has remained one of his most performed so for a director of a new production the trick is to bring a freshness to the familiarity which, on the whole, Rupert Goold manages with considerable skill.

The trick in this case was the set the play in two worlds. For Romeo and his Juliet we were in the 21st century with a picture of scruffy youth with Romeo in his hoody and a Juliet in trainers full of teenage  . . . like, whatever  . . . when we first meet her.

The rest of the cast are in traditional Shakespearian Elizabethan dress which emphasises that this archetypal tale of doomed young love  is universal and not some bit of history set in a time of doublets and hose.

Of the pairing Mariah Gale is the more successful as Juliet. She manages to appear waif-like and has the innocent vulnerability of a 14-year-old. We feel her excitement at her love for Romeo and secret marriage and feel her pain and anguish when her father first tries then orders her to marry Paris (James Howard). Hers is a memorable performance full of teenage angst and passion.

Sam Troughton as Romeo is less convincing. Not that it is the excellent Troughton's fault. He is comfortable and at ease with Shakespeare and makes the text come alive and sound like speech rather than a recitation but anyone who saw BBC's Robin Hood where he was Much will realise that appearing as a teenager is always going to be a challenge for the 33-year-old, fine actor that he is.

He appears too worldly, too experienced for the kisses and romance of two teenagers in those early days of aching passion and a love to die for.

Not that it was a major distraction, more an observation.

The ancient and modern theme was nicely blended with Romeo first appearing as a tourist with a digital camera and meeting his cousin Benvolio who is handed the camera to see an image of Romeo's love of that moment, Rosaline. Benvolio, rather than amazed or afeared by the magic light box uses the camera to take a picture of someone in the audience to show Romeo that there are plenty of other pretty girls to try first.

ANYTHING FOR A LAUGH

And when Romeo appears on a bike Mercutio takes it over without a second thought. Jonjo O'Neill is brilliant as the joking, anything for a laugh Mercutio and his mimed sex education lesson for beginners is almost worth the price of admission alone.

He brings laughs and humour to the proceeding, and although he is neither Capulet nor Montague, the two feuding houses of Verona, he also brings a mix of excitement and danger with his recklessness and hatred of Tybalt of the Capulets.

A hatred which sets into motion the course of events which lead to the rising body count in the final scenes as Tybalt kills Mercutio, Romeo, now his cousin, kills Tybalt and our lovers are doomed for etermity.

Joseph Arkley's Tybalt (Seen above battling with  O' Neill's Mercutio, right) gives us a brooding, hatred which is ready to explode at any time while another notable performance among many comes from the excellent nurse, Norma Dumezweni, (seen below dressing Juliet for her wedding to Paris) who brings humour to her fussing over her charge.

Praise too for Terry King, the fight director. There is a lot of fighting and it is way beyond the one-two-three-four left-right-left-right metronome swings seen too often in stage sword fights. This is full blooded clashes with steel on steel and a stage full of whirling violence with danger in every swing.

CLEVER SET

The play is also helped by a clever set from Tom Scutt and an ever changing back projection designed by Lorna Heavey although I was not too sure about the  did the earth move for you  sun burst as our star-cross'd lovers consummated their union.

I was also unsure about the beginning and ending. The prologue to set the scene and draw the battle lines was lost in the sing-song foreign accent from the earphones of an audio tour guide with the line requesting the audience to listen and follow the plot -  “if you with patient ears attend”  - lost in the cacophony of an opening fight.

As for the end . . . having everyone in modern dress with police on radios like refugees from the soon to be axed The Bill was perhaps overkill.

We already know that the play can be set in any time and enough productions have tried to show us that the two houses alike in dignity could be divided by colour, race or even come down to gang warfare.

If the message had not got through the patient ears already after three hours and five minutes then the chances are it never would.

But apart from the minor quibbles Goold has provided that freshness with a production full fire, violence, humour, passion and that glorious agony of first love. Last night's audeince was heavy with young people and if this was their first taste of Shakespeare in the flesh then they will be back for more.

Roger Clarke 

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