Wednesday evening. I mutter impatiently under my breath at every other driver in the city centre who seems to be going deliberately slowly and impeding my course, while knowing it’s really my own fault for not leaving for the Playhouse fifteen minutes earlier. Pulling into a parking space on College Street, I decide to take my chances with the council’s new evening parking charges (boo, hiss) and run straight past the meter to the foyer to collect my tickets for the evening’s press performance of Romeo & Juliet. The empty foyer is a worrying sign, and the box office assistant is polite but firm while insisting that as there is a strict no-latecomers policy, I will not be allowed into the auditorium. And so, I didn’t see the show. And I have nothing to write in this review.
A bright white flash.
Wednesday evening. I arrive at the Playhouse, collect my ticket and head downstairs to the lower foyer to watch the Mouthy Poets, then get a drink, and take my seat before the lights go down. You see, there is an alternative ‘Sliding Doors’ style timeline, where I did leave earlier, and got to the Playhouse in plenty of time. And it is time which is central to Headlong’s production of Shakespeare’s well-known love story, with a large screen suspended above the stage projecting the time and day throughout the course of the action, reminding us that everything takes place in the space of three days – from the initial meeting of the star-crossed lovers, via their hasty marriage, to their deathbeds. The timeline is also used to clarify when Robert Icke’s production uses its flashiest concept (the one which I have shamelessly emulated above): at various points during the drama an alternate course of events is shown – the Montagues and Capulets let their initial scuffle in the opening scenes dissipate rather than escalate, Capulet doesn’t force his daughter to marry Paris after Tybalt’s death; Romeo receives Friar Lawrence’s letter warning him of the plan to fake Juliet’s death. Each time, a bright white flash of light and a resetting of the projected clock are followed by the scene being repeated with a different outcome, constant reminders that the tragedy of the two young lovers’ deaths is the culmination of a number of different circumstances and decisions which could have played out differently.
This concept, along with the contemporary set and costume designs, and the pace of the production with its overlapping scenes, all create an interpretation of Shakespeare’s production which is fresh, modern and exhilarating. It is full of youthful energy, especially as both Romeo and Juliet are presented as incredibly young – Romeo ready to drop one apparent love of his life (Rosaline) for another in the blink of an eye, and both desperate to race into marriage after knowing each other for a matter of minutes, and then ready to end their lives when forced to be apart. While other versions present this as evidence of their powerful and true love for each other, here they come across as incredibly naïve teenagers, yet to grow up and experience the big wide world in which love, loss and pain are real but survivable. But you cannot blame them for jumping at the chance of happiness and escape when the adults around them are so shambolic – Juliet’s parents’ relationship is drunken, abusive, damaged.
Catrin Stewart (last seen in the East Midlands in the excellent Buried Child at Curve) is convincing as a young, at times bratty, Juliet, who grows up and finds a more adult voice when contemplating the gravity of her plan to fake death and avoid marriage to Paris. With Brigid Zengerni as her very nurturing and maternal nurse, and Caroline Faber as her distant, nervous mother, we get a pretty full picture of her world and the adults who have influenced her. Romeo’s world is less developed, though Mercutio (Tom Mothersdale) taunting Tybalt, Prince of Cats is a joy to behold.
The time-centric concept and visual feel of the production are very successful, and it was clear on Wednesday night that it was engaging its audience, especially the huge numbers of young people in the auditorium. Nottingham Playhouse (as a co-producer) has also taken an innovative approach to framing the play, organising a brilliant marketing campaign centring around a giant red ampersand (&), promoting the twitter hashtag ‘starxlovers’, and programming the spoken word group Mouthy Poets to perform in the lower foyer for half an hour preceding each night’s show. However, amongst all of this exciting conceptual thinking, it must be said that it is the original text which gets lost. The are moments where the actors seem to be really engaging with and communicating Shakespeare’s verse, but there are also times where it feels they are just hurriedly shouting inaudible words with no real understanding of the poetry and sense they contain. That being said, this brave, energetic production is definitely worth a watch. Just make sure you arrive in time.
Romeo & Juliet runs at Nottingham Playhouse until Saturday 24 March 2012
Reviewed for Left Lion