Greenwich Theatre, London – until 22 April 2017
A self-described modern rep company, Merely Theatre is addressing Shakespeare’s gender problem with 50/50 casting. Five male/female pairs each learn a set of characters in two plays, then on the night it’s decided who will perform. The result is a focus on clear storytelling rather than unimportant details such as the appearance or gender if individual characters. It’s a great device, and partnered with simple staging and a pace that doesn’t hang about, artistic director Scott Ellis has created a distinctive style of performance honouring the historical aesthetics of travelling players, though there’s a lack of nuance dissatisfying to modern audiences.
Ellis trims the script to focus on action rather than lengthy speeches, which gets this Romeo and Juliet under two hours traffic on our stage. Though there are some moments that are a bit rushed, the pace is generally spritely and energetic, barrelling towards its inevitable end. The verse delivery is vibrant and alive, without heavy pauses or long transitions weighing down the story.
The character choices are largely predictable, with influence from stock characters to play up the comedy. The lovers are well performed, but overly earnest and lacking the urgency of discovering forbidden love that risks their deaths. Ellis also makes the pointed choice to take their love totally seriously, rather than looking at the ridiculousness and extremity of their teenage relationship. The adults who drive the feud are made to look silly, whilst the young characters who fall victim to their choices are totally naturalistic.
Hannah Ellis as Mercutio is the strongest of the ensemble by far. Her characters are distinct, with little bleed in each other. Some of the others, what with the quick transitions, are occasionally muddy. Tamara Astor is an excellent, panto-ish nurse and a calming Benvolio. Emmy Rose is stronger as Tybalt than Juliet, though nicely contrasted by the paternal Ffion Jones as the Friar. The gender split is brilliant progress for classical theatre, but the all-white, young cast otherwise lacks diversity.
The staging indicates that this is a style primarily for the outdoors or with shared light – there are several frustrating moments where the actors go into the audience and are not lit. The use of a spotlight in the final scene misdirects attention to the dead couple whilst the other characters making peace over their bodies are in shadow. It’s a shame that the actors’ faces are lost in the dark in these moments.
Though the nuance of the title roles is neglected, the style Merely Theatre has developed is theatrically effective. Fast and fun, it’s great for schools and outdoor touring, but for a popular play that’s often staged, there are few compelling or risky character choices that make this production stand out. The directorial focus seems to lie more on the staging rather than plumbing the characters’ depths. It’s a fine production, but not a particularly notable one beyond the company’s casting philosophy.