“Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast”
At the beginning of the year, I thought it was Macbeth that was the play of the year with three major productions lined up for the first half of the year, but it seems that Romeo & Juliet has actually been the more popular as I trudged up to Wood Green to see what was my fourth set of star-cross’d lovers in 3 months. My step was lightened though by the knowledge that this was a production by MokitaGrit, a production company responsible for one of my musical highlights of the year so far, Once Upon A Time At The Adelphi.
This Romeo & Juliet was billed as an urban retelling, ‘Shakespeare meets Skins’, set in the gang-dominated Verona council estate. Its most striking innovation is to use a group of free-runners, Team Invision, to manage the scene changes, their acrobatics providing a physical urgency and danger to proceedings. The venue is quite a quirky one, the courtyard of a great-looking restaurant Mosaica which is based in a disused chocolate factory in Wood Green, now a cultural hub. Surrounded by high buildings on three sides, this production made the most of its location and used many of the different levels to varying effect.
Productions of this play live and die on its leads and in Kyle McPhail and Esther Smith, it has done extremely well. Emerging from the audience in casual dress, they could be and indeed are just like any of us (except of course, they are two fine actors!) McPhail lends his Romeo a wiry, youthful exuberance and a genuine appeal, alive to the new possibilities offered to him unable to shake the legacy of his gangland past. Smith’s Juliet is a more pensive creature but still ruled by her emotions and her ‘banished’ speech is absolutely superb. She is ably assisted throughout by a grand performance by Rosalind Blessed as the Nurse, fully in command of the verse and delivered with a fabulously natural delivery. One really believed her emotional connection with Juliet and so whilst we laughed with her as is easily done, we really felt her pain too at the discovery of Juliet’s prone body.
I wasn’t mad keen on Duncan Wilkins’ rangy Mercutio complete with ‘Crying Game’ moment, instead preferring Joseph Creeth’s tender Benvolio, a character whom the more I see this play, the more I think is one of my favourite characters in it. Elsewhere I liked (the mercifully sportswear free) Tom Gleaves as a preppy Paris, Darren Lawrence as a trendy vicar-inspired Friar Lawrence and Jeremy Lloyd Thomas as Capulet. Jennifer Biddall stood out for me, partly because she is just stunning, partly because of her fierce red shoes, but also she’s about as young as Lady Capulet could get. I liked the idea of her being a trophy wife and probably forced into marriage the same as she is trying to do to her daughter now, but she imbued all her scenes with a lovely quiet dignity: I look forward to catching her in more substantive roles in the future.
Making his directorial debut here is Adam Welsh who has done an admirable job. So many inventive touches and flourishes peppered throughout and he has coaxed a world of natural physical performances from his cast which placed it firmly in the modern day context. Looking back, I wish he’d been a bit more daring in his treatment of the play though: making it urban and gang-related was great, but the finale ends up being all about the families rather than the gangs of the first half so I would have tried to work them in a bit, even if just to be present at the very end to see the tragic culmination of their way of life on these two kids. I rather suspect he has seen the Rupert Goold RSC production this year as the opening section carried at least two references to it, a man was doused in petrol in the brawl and one of the star-cross’d lovers wanders round with a camera although in this case it is Juliet rather than Romeo and since the RSC’s brawl was full of flaming torches and fiery bursts and men with arms on fire, there was a real sense of danger, that the victim might even be set alight, here you were never under such illusion.
There are moments when the play and setting come together in perfect harmony, most magical was the wedding scene with the rest of the cast scattered round the surroundings buildings and singing from the windows. However, there were also times when they fought against each other a bit. A block at one end of the courtyard provided the perfect location for the balcony and an additional level from which to play various other scenes, but half of the audience had their backs to this so it was a bit of a trial.
This was an interesting take on Romeo and Juliet I would have liked it to have had the courage of its convictions and carried its initial innovative approach even further: the second half was actually played quite straight in the end. Ultimately it suffered a little for me in direct comparison with some of the other Romeo and Juliets that I have seen so recently: the near-perfect RSC production and an alternative site-specific production which had much more flexibility in its use of locations and ability to move its audience. Still, this was an engaging evening, from an interesting production company who are proving themselves ones to watch.