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A CurtainUp Review
Romeo and Juliet
One writ with me in sour misfortune’s book
---Romeo, Act V, Scene iii
Last year the first Ensemble repertoire from the National was a triumph. Starting with Troilus and Cressida, the programme went on to win awards for Trevor Nunn and many of the actors. This year sees the most inauspicious start with a production of Romeo and Juliet which is at best poorly spoken and at worst, a disaster. We can only hope that the other three plays in the programme, Peer Gynt, Remembrance of Things Past and The Playboy of the Western World, will serve to restore the National’s reputation.
Tim Supple places his families across a racial divide, the Capulets are white, the Montagues, black. The idea might make sense except that the point about Romeo and Juliet is that no-one knows the nature of the quarrel that divides the Montagues and the Capulets.
Supple’s Verona is, I think, in a volatile South American state. I deduce this because they drink tequila slammers and carry machete knives. The friar lives in a curious hut of corrugated iron. The Prince’s army are round silver helmeted military policemen, with sub-machine guns needed to curb the violence. This is a society fallen victim to gang warfare along racial lines. In placing Romeo and Juliet in a modern dress, gang ridden state, Supple has invited direct comparison with the recent film by Baz Luhrmann which successfully brought Shakespeare’s verse to a new audience.
Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Romeo is a stronger performance than Juliet in this confused production but at no point is there any real sense of passion between the pair. Charlotte Randle’s Juliet is an excitable teenager whose acting seems, all too often, over the top; her diction was just not good enough. Ronald Pickup’s camel coat slung over the shoulder, Capulet is a tired old man, thin, grey bearded; he even sounded hoarse. Mercutio (Patrick O’Kane) did not shine for me so his death lost the edge of tragedy. Tybalt (Andy Williams), “Prince of Cats”, is a skin headed thug. I liked Beverley Klein’s motherly Nurse and Olwen Fouéré’s Lady Capulet -- almost Lady Macbeth as she demands, “Romeo killed Tybalt. Romeo must die.” The party coming to take Juliet to her wedding turns to group hysteria as they find her dead.
The play has a live band which plays eerie music as Romeo discovers Juliet in the tomb. In the ball room scene, in an attempt at disguise, the Montagues who are obviously black and noticeable, wear masks and white gloves and sneakers with their tuxedos but it seems obvious that they are not Capulets.
The set is two huge semicircular walls, one with open squares, the other with smaller apertures, both eminently scaleable. They have to be rather cumbersomely pushed into place by shouldering stage hands but give pretty lighting patterns through the grids. Juliet sits atop one, maybe eighteen feet off the stage for her balcony scene, looking precarious. The purpose of the tables and chairs in the café scenes seems only to be for them to be overturned in fights between the gangs.
It is not as though this is a highly experimental production which has fallen short. The main problem is badly spoken verse. On a more optimistic note, things can only get better for the NT Ensemble. Note: The opening night of Romeo and Juliet was postponed for a few days while Trevor Nunn tried to “fine tune” the production. More needs to be tightened up.
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