“Were thou as young as I”
In Joseph Drake and Audrey Brisson, Sally Cookson’s Romeo + Juliet has a perfectly matched pair of pint-sized lovers to take to the stage at the Rose Kingston. And in creating a non-specifically modern Verona (as hinted by the format of the title which borrows from Luhrmann), Cookson creates the ideal setting in which to let her vivid imagination run riot over Shakespeare’s much-performed classic. Her bold vision may not be to everyone’s tastes but it delivers a unique pleasure.
Katie Sykes’ multi-platformed urban playground of a set suggests an underbelly of a city akin to the undercroft of the Southbank Centre, recently saved for its skateboarders and under the tumble of fluorescent tubes that makes up Aideen Malone’s lighting design, there’s a highly charged sense of energy ready to explode. Benji Bower’s score carries much of the weight of the atmosphere though, an insistent presence throughout the production for better and for worse.
Its pulsing electronic beats anchor the contemporary feel perfectly, soundtracking the elegant swoops of Dan Canham’s movement and morphing into some beautiful songs – Brisson’s Juliet contributes a stunning ambient vocal and Sharon D Clarke is able to unleash her impressive pipes to great effect. Prokofiev’s instantly recognisable Dance of the Knights gets a chopped up remix for a striking ball scene and Bower’s live playing, along with Brian Hargreaves and Adam Pleeth, is a constant pleasure.
The marriage of music and verse doesn’t always sit quite so easily though, not least in the opening sequence in which a distinctive prelude gives away to the whole ensemble chanting the first lines but barely audibly, fighting against music and each other. This isn’t the only time that the established poetry of the verse seems to play second fiddle in Cookson’s world meaning it rarely feels like the best-spoken production, especially with a number of key textual cuts. What it does have though is a wealth of interesting ideas, bursting from the seams as she finds her own rhythm in Shakespeare’s work.
Laura Elphinstone imbues the role of Mercutio with a spiky pain that underscores her fierce passion, Maureen Beattie revels in a composite Capulet, both mother and father at once, and Peter becomes a Manuel-like Pedro in the capable hands of Javier Marzan, bantering nicely with Clarke’s Caribbean Nurse. And in the midst of it all, there’s a refreshingly normal pair of star-cross’d lovers – Brisson’s natural energy and vulnerability an ideal match for Drake’s quivering emotion.
The sense that they (and Mercutio, and Felix Hayes’ coldly furious Tybalt too) are victims of society burns strongest here. The latter two haunt the second act, perpetuating the cycle of violence even through their ghostly presence, and even as it seems Romeo and Juliet might get their reunion in death, Juliet’s chilling and brutal death tears apart what could have been their final embrace. So a boldly ambitious approach that doesn’t always pay off but never does less than entertain.