Not only is 2017 the unofficial ‘Year of Twelfth Night’, it also seems to come with Romeo and Juliet in rep – and this is the case for the Watermill Theatre’s touring productions, which played recently at Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre. Romeo + Juliet is set in Capulet’s bar in the present day; as the audience enters the cast perform several songs, including Take Me To Church, No Diggity and Praise You (presumably it’s karaoke night in the bar, who knows?). The strongest themes in this play are of love and intense rivalry – this production’s setting is not unsuited to the play, by any means, but neither does it enhance its meaning in any way.
The Montagues and Capulets have been enemies longer than anyone can remember, and their conflict keeps Verona on a knife edge. Amidst all this, Romeo is besotted with Rosaline, but she has rejected him – though all is forgotten when Romeo meets Juliet at the Capulet ball. It’s love at first sight, and their relationship moves dangerously fast, Friar Laurence assisting when he realises their union could bring peace to the city. However, when Romeos friend Mercutio is slain by Tybalt, who in turn Romeo kills, Romeo is banished and it seems there is not future for the couple.
Presumably the Montagues and Capulets are running competing businesses, but unlike some recent productions I’ve seen of this play, this doesn’t really account for the families’ bloody history – or add anything to the fast-forward relationship between the eponymous lovers. I also am a bit confused as to why the Prince thinks it’s intimidating or authoritative to bounce a squash ball at the culmination of speeches… If it has some significance, or is supposed to provide an effect of some kind, it is lost on me.
As with Twelfth Night, Kate Lias’ designs are pleasing to the eye, with a very authentic looking bar (complete with ‘Capulet’s’ neon sign). The set is easily transformed into the Capulet tomb towards the end of the play, with echoes of the Baz Lurhmann film springing to mind. There are moments where Tom Jackson Greaves’ choreography is a bit baffling – most notably the crescendo to act one. Romeo and Juliet have just tied the knot, when the entire cast bursts into an interpretative dance routine – it’s almost like it’s attempting to foreshadow the short remainder of their relationship, but it’s a slightly odd way to go into the interval.
The play is a fairly long one, and they’ve done their best to keep as much in as possible, but in doing so it sacrifices some of its effect. For example, Juliet makes it plain that she can no longer trust the Nurse and seeks other counsel, only for the Friar to employ her services to take his message to Romeo about his plan; this is obviously due to the need to double up some of the cast, but nearly any other cast member would do (they often put on hoodies and play background characters anyway). Also, in trying to fit in as much of the play as they can, around their musical performances, a lot of the lines feel very rushed – simply spoken rather than acted. For someone who’s never seen the play before this is far from ideal; it’s very difficult to understand what some of the lines actually mean if no understanding is first shown by the actor saying them.
Lauryn Redding as the Nurse gives a standout performance, instilling her with a warmth and caring towards Juliet. Redding also makes the most of the comic potential of the role, but without completely overdoing it. In a play with such dark undertones and a tragic end, it’s great to have someone in the cast that you can rely on for some comic relief every now and then.
My verdict? A good attempt at a modern, gutsy version of a classic tragedy, but is a bit lacking in meaning – some enjoyable performances and more great musical incorporation.
Romeo + Juliet ran at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre from 23-27 May 2017. Full details of the tour (in rep with Twelfth Night) can be found on the official website.