Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon – until 19 January 2019
Running and scuffling, a crowd of kids in black scatters across the stark stage under an open-sided, distressedly concrete-looking box. They fizz with energy, insult and partisan gang loyalty. And they all have knives. This young community chorus shares the opening: Erica Whyman’s take on “fair Verona” and the feud of Montague and Capulet is contemporary, its lethal blade culture all too topical.
So is the casting of “Prince” Escalus, Beth Cordingley striding exasperatedly in a swishing smart coat to stop the latest melée: a woman in power despairing at immature male aggression. In another intelligent gender-switch, the Prince’s cousin is one of two tough girls as combative as their male peers. Mercutio, normally just one of the most irritating, punning hyper characters in Shakespeare, is the quicksilver performer Charlotte Josephine: androgynous, crop-haired, mocking, a far tougher cookie than Josh Finan’s gentle, lovingly homo-affectionate Benvolio.
But it is not a tiresomely gimmicky ‘now’ production, but one marked all through by that close-worked RSC concentration on the text which always prompts interesting new thoughts about a play we know well. Bally Gill’s Romeo is excitable, daft in his mooning for Rosaline; but in the freeze-frame moment at Capulet’s wild disco party he grows into a thunderstruck sincerity which, for all continuing puppyish and impulsive moments, gives him an enduring open-eyed dignity. Though the one bit of textual meddling that raised my eyebrow was when he sees bright Juliet hanging on the cheek of night “like some rich jewel on an Ethiop’s ear”. This Romeo says “ebony ear”. Which just sounds weird, and in a relaxedly diverse cast, more prissily PC than is necessary.
Otherwise it’s wonderful. Karen Fishwick’s Juliet is fresh, brave, growing through the play from childlike simplicity to reckless and honourable love. Her Scottish tones give the lines the poetry they need; yet the hot reality of the coup-de-foudre affair enables the pair, without strain, to get unexpected moments of comedy out of the often overswoony balcony scene.
His attempt to depart is every besotted couple’s “no, you ring off” “No, you..” The Nurse, Ishia Bennison, is wonderfully funny, cackling about her nursing years, earthy and interfering, not an “ancient” though she seems so to the young but full of knowing middle-aged familiarity and self-importance. A small bouquet here too to Raif Clarke as her fed-up attendant Peter: he scores several of his own laughs. The nurse’s first scenes with Juliet are telling, the girl flopping on her lap and giggling at her feet while the seeming at times a decent pragmatist, but suddenly terrifying, a proto-Lear when he curses his rebellious daughter “Hang, beg, ie in the streets!”. Again, a thought arises: this man feels his status and authority crumbling, see how he sucks up to Count Paris…
And the fighting? Tybalt is a thuggish Raphael Sowole, knife-happy and aggressive; when the mocking, slender Mercutio provokes him you sense layers of private animosity. And for me a new reflection arises: the lazy truism is that it was the feud of the elders that caused the tragedy, of which the young lovers were victims. But the text makes it clear that the elders are wearying of the old battle – when Romeo has crashed the party, Capulet restrains young Tybalt with “be patient, take no note of him, he shall be endured”. Both sets of parents are more than ready to listen to Escalus by the end, blaming nobody, reformed by sorrow as we all wish enemies would be. It is the young, the impetuous kids in black, who keep the feud alive: thumb-biting idiots Gregory and Sampson, swaggering Tybalt defying his uncle in his determination to punish the outrage of Romeo invading his ‘hood. And not least Mercutio: who for all Romeo’s pleading is spoiling for a fight with knife and insult, and won’t let up. That it should be swagger, stupidity and verbal defiance that lights the fuse of disaster for the lovers is as topical as it always was.
box office rsc.org.uk to 19 Jan