Romeo and Juliet arrives at the Barbican as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s London residency. Directed by Erica Whyman, Shakespeare’s classic story of love and rivalry is given a contemporary makeover that results in an energetic and urgent adaptation.
Although written over four centuries ago, this production feels chillingly relevant, with members of rival families brandish knives and fight on the streets, the bloody consequences of gang warfare brutally highlighted. The tale of the warring Montagues and Capulets is set in Verona, but it is easy to translate this culture to Sadiq Khan’s contemporary London. And yet, despite the tragedy, there proves a surprising amount of comedy interwoven within the drama and heartbreak that makes for an engaging evening.
The production’s highlight is the host of standout performances drawn from a talented and diverse cast. Whyman elects to have the Prince of Verona and Mercutio played by women (Beth Cordingly and Charlotte Josephine respectively) and for the most part this works. Though a little over-exaggerated at times, Josephine puts in a fine performance as the spirited Mercutio, who is just as tough and brash as any of the boys and, tragically isn’t afraid to back down from a challenge.
Elsewhere Andrew French provides a calming presence as Friar Laurence, keen to help the teenage couple but unwittingly setting in motion a wave of calamitous events. Ishia Bennison threatens to steal each scene she’s in as the cheeky, no-nonsense Nurse, a mother figure for Juliet, and at times it feels as if she wouldn’t be out of place in a Victoria Wood sketch, providing most of the comic relief.
At the heart of the play of course are the star-crossed lovers, played by Bally Gill and Karen Fishwick, exuding chemistry. Gill shines as the lovesick Romeo, trying to keep the peace with his new wife’s family at first, then quick to turn with a dark, underlying temper. Fishwick’s Juliet is endearing, playful and passionate as the teenager struggles with the conflict of her heart’s desire and parental pressures, and it very much becomes her play. Though she is a joy to watch throughout, it is a particularly unnerving scene between Juliet and her bullying father, played by Michael Hodgson, as both actors thrillingly convince.
Tom Piper’s minimalist urban design, centred by a rotating cube, takes some getting used to but is surprisingly versatile. There is a poignancy in it providing both the setting for Romeo and Juliet’s marital bed and their final resting place. Sophie Cotton’s music highlights the contemporary feel and boundless energy of the play, notably during the Capulets’ masked ball, now a rave.
While the play isn’t perfect – the opening scene feels out of place, the production drags at times and purists may wish to look away – it is undoubtably a fresh and accessible take on an age-old tale. And much like Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 movie, this inspiring, compelling and youthful adaptation is sure to open Shakespeare’s most famous love story to new audiences.
This review was first posted on the Jonathan Baz reviews website. You can view the original here.