“I will show myself a tyrant”
This version of Romeo and Juliet moves the action to 1938 when Italy was under Mussolini’s fascist rule. Produced by the Ruby in the Smoke company and taking up residence in the small basement of the Leicester Square Theatre until 11th July, this offers a largely inventive take on the familiar story of the “star-cross’d lovers”. A cast of eight cover the much edited version of events with a reduced number of characters too, there’s a little doubling up but there’s still only 11 characters featured in this production, the main casualties are the parents, only Capulet remains.
The literature around the show talks of the Race Law instituted by Mussolini in 1938, forbidding Italians from marrying Jews, and by making Romeo a son of David, the focus of the show is shifted away from family feuds over to anti-Semitism, Juliet is the daughter of a militant member of the secret police thereby creating the tension that forces the play along. This is a neat reconception, but I’m not 100% sure that it worked or that it was supported by the text: I could see Romeo’s small Jewish necklace as I was near the front, but I rather suspect for some the first indication that he was a Jew would have been towards the end when he put on an overcoat marked with a yellow star.
However, the play has taken on a number of innovations alongside the temporal shift. The inventiveness works especially well in the first half, the use of music especially the haunting violin and the singing, especially of the militaristic song by the Blackshirts was highly atmospheric, enhancing events no end and a spot of ‘30s dancing capturing the mood of the masked ball perfectly and really rooting it in the era to which it has been transposed. The replacement of the Prince with Il Duce is also striking with the salutes providing the constant reminder of the autocratic rule we’re under here. But there did come the creeping feeling that the inspiration had run out by the time we got to the second half where most of the tricks are stopped and it just becomes a straight reading of the play and consequently a little dull.
The acting is by no means horrific: David Laughton was good as Benvolio but I fear he tried too hard to differentiate his Friar Laurence, playing him as a Machiavellian manipulator complete with evil glints in his eye, an interpretation which did not sit well with me. Martin Dickinson and Dan Moore brought a great menacing muscular presence to their uniformed Tybalt and Paris, and Olivia Vinall and Daniel Finn as the titular lovers were fine rather than spectacular, struggling to really build the strength of their relationship amid the new context. Matters were hampered horribly though by the noisiest door known to man: in a tiny space (made worse by the fact I was right by the door), the sound of the door creaking shut every time a character entered or left a scene was like 4 seconds of a didgeridoo playing every, single, time. It was highly annoying and came close to ruining the show for me.
I admire the pluck here for taking a radical look at such a well-known play, personally I don’t think I am convinced that this was an entirely successful reinterpretation, the replacement of the family feud element with the underdeveloped religious intolerance means that too much of the tragedy of the play is lost, in particular at the ending. Still, there’s a fair bit to enjoy here, especially in the first half, but for the love of God, someone please get some WD40 for that door!