A modern and moving take on Romeo and Juliet from the RSC at the Barbican
“I am too young. I pray you, pardon me”
It’s sometimes a little difficult to take seriously how old everyone is meant to be in Romeo and Juliet but Erica Whyman’s modern-day production for the RSC, playing in rep now at the Barbican, never lets you forget. She fills the stage with kids for a cacophonous prologue, Karen Fishwick’s Juliet rightfully feels like a child and in turn, Mariam Haque’s Lady Capulet (“I was your mother much upon these years that you are now a maid”) is a convincing 26, closer to her daughter in age than her husband, but emotionally distant from both.
It’s a pattern Juliet seizes the first chance to break when she meets Bally Gill’s charismatic Romeo, a young man very much still coming into his own. And you feel that it is the running away that appeals to her just as much as the running away together. For she’s all too aware that there are cycles of violence that the young’uns of this Verona can’t hope to escape – indeed what chance do they have when even all the adults around them carry and use knives to resolve even the smallest slight.
With such violence underscoring this world, there’s never any sense that this won’t be a story of such woe. The pleasure comes in looking at those who don’t quite fit in correctly. Charlotte Josephine’s brash Mercutio is like a streak of vibrant colour in this predominantly grey world, a woman forcefully establishing herself in a man’s world and overcompensating with it. Beth Cordingly’s Escalus has a similar struggle but is full of quiet fury as she tries to keep the peace. And a jolt of unexpected but real emotion comes from Josh Finan’s Benvolio, utterly and completely in love with Romeo and clearly thinking he’s in with a chance. Love it!
Tom Piper’s utilitarian cuboid design reflects the unforgiving nature of this Verona but even through the cracks, there’s hints that life and love can grow. Ishia Bennison’s beautifully compassionate nurse wears whatever bright colour she likes and there’s a verdant lushness to the cell where we find Andrew French’s Friar Lawrence. But the hope they offer proves too thin, particularly against Michael Hodgson’s quick-tempered violence as Capulet or Raphael Sowole’s menacing Tybalt. Fishwick and Gill combine sensitively and there’s a gentle thud of real tragedy that comes with the extinguishing of their hope of escape.