I must confess that I find it rather difficult to get excited about productions of Shakespeare’s tragedy of love, Romeo and Juliet. The play is one of the bard’s biggest hits, and it tends to get put on very frequently, at the expense of some of Shakespeare’s other tragedies, like, say, his collaboration with George Peele, Titus Andronicus, or his Coriolanus. It also gets put on at the expense of many other great early modern tragedies, such as Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, (his contested) Arden of Faversham, and his original Elizabethan love-tragedy, Soliman and Perseda; or Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine plays and The Jew of Malta; not to mention the tragic works of John Marston, John Webster, and sundry others. That said, I have no qualms about Everyman selecting this much-loved classic in order to show off the marvellous talent they have at their disposal. But if you’re going to select a sacred cow, you’d better bring it to pastures new…
And that’s exactly what the directors Mark Modzelewski and Jack Paterson have done. The play began with myriad voices, the prologue incantatory, with vivid tableaus. From the off, I could perceive that Everyman were going for something quite different with this production: they were going to deliver all the great moments in Shakespeare’s play that have been adored for centuries, but they were also going to keep it fresh, with visceral emotion and raw intensity between the warring houses. Many speeches were split between characters, giving more of an ensemble feel, and Benvolio, a role I once played myself, had suddenly become two characters, aptly named Ben (played by Edward Kettle) and Volio (Stephanie Smith). All this made for a Romeo and Juliet that delivered the classic moments and the adulated lines, but mixed things up with great success. If I have one criticism, it is that I felt the cast could have made more of the humour in the first half of the play. What I enjoy most about Shakespeare’s text is the dichotomy between the comedic first half and the despairing second half, engendered by Mercutio’s death. Whether the directors had decided to rein in the comedy for the sake of eliciting emotive responses from the audience, or whether the fact that this was the first night meant the cast were less likely to take risks, I’m not sure. That said, Cari Barley did an excellent job in the Senecan role of the Nurse (however, this part can also be found in Arthur Brooke’s poem, which served as a source for Shakespeare), in the scene when Juliet entreats her to offer information about Romeo’s marriage proposal.
What about the lovers themselves? Mikey Howe made for an eminently likeable Romeo, who demonstrably grew in confidence as the play progressed, and will hit his stride as the production continues, I’m sure. He really nailed the youthful naivety, amorousness, and despair of the protagonist. As for Juliet, I must concede that, in the vast majority of productions I’ve seen, the actress does a poor job. Juliet, if not played right, can come across as a whiney, obstreperous teenager, thus obliterating any invested emotion on the part of the audience. Helen Randall, however, made for a beautiful Juliet, both inside and out, a captivating bright angel whenever she was on stage, with pitch-perfect delivery of Shakespeare’s pentameter lines, perfect diction, wry humour, and understated despair. She was indubitably the finest Juliet I’ve seen on stage and had wonderful chemistry with her Romeo.
The cast did a great job overall, from the snarling Tybalt (played by Asha Cecil), to the loveable ghostly father, Friar Laurence (played by James Pritchard), and the excellent Jon Barnes as Mercutio. Barnes’s Mercutio was the ideal blend of loveable cad and dangerous ally, and his death was very touching and ushered in the woeful downfall of Juliet and her Romeo. The creative ensemble were also superb, and were integral to the success of the play. The directors evidently allowed the cast to improvise in rehearsal, to experiment, and some moments, such as Romeo’s encounter with the Apothecary, were visually and audibly stunning. Too often reviewers focus solely on the ‘leading’ actors, without acknowledging the hard work of the supporting cast, who provide the very foundations for performance and are crucial to the quality of a play. I must mention Tom Roderick in particular; he listened and responded intently and aptly to every line of the play, and his ability to react, and to invest himself in each unfolding moment, was commendable.
Nature is above art, a doctrine Shakespeare himself imparts in King Lear, and the outdoor surroundings really contributed to this production. The clock would strike on the most portentous moments, such as Mercutio’s demise, and sometimes it was hard to discern between artificial sirens and real police cars zipping through Cardiff. One particular highlight was the moment that Romeo prepared to kill himself. A flock of seagulls screamed in protest, like the figurative raven from the anonymous The Tragedy of Richard III that Shakespeare parodied in Hamlet, singing not, but screeching for revenge. Indeed, the cast’s deep sighs added more clouds to the ominous lazy-pacing clouds that converged on the production.
Lastly, I must praise the fight scenes, which really had the audience on the edge of their seats. Some of the blows were incredibly realistic, as one might expect from a production with the super talented Simon Riordan as Assistant Director. All in all, this was a solid production, with a marvellous cast, perfectly directed (and well edited, might I add! It was a brisk piece of engrossing entertainment), that dispelled any gripes I had about the potentiality of this production being same-old.
Once again, I say bravo Everyman; this company never fails to delivery high-quality productions, and I am particularly excited to review the eyases performing Richard II on Sunday.
Romeo and Juliet runs from 21 July – 30 July at Sophia Gardens, Cardiff.
Photography: Keith Stanbury