Star-crossed: Bell Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

Alongside A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet is surely one of Shakespeare’s most well-known plays. Even if we’ve never seen or studied the play, we know its story from the plot of countless films, books, artworks, pieces of music created over the centuries. In his first production since assuming the reigns of Bell Shakespeare, Peter Evans goes back to the Bard and gives us a Romeo and Juliet that might be clothed in period costume but act and behave like contemporary teenagers. And like Baz Luhrmann’s hyperactive reimagining set in the fictional Verona Beach, Evans’ production is for the most part strong and accomplished.

Perhaps taking a leaf from Luhrmann’s film, and the slowly-crumbling Sycamore Grove movie theatre on Verona beach, Evans and designer Anna Cordingley have set this production within the confines of what we might assume is an empty theatre – all forlorn arch, bunched curtains, and disused opera boxes. Supporting it like crutches are scaffolding towers, which lends the production a robust physicality as the actors – and indeed characters – climb through and around the set with the ease and agility of acrobats. Cordingley’s costumes are richly textured and conjure up a vision of 1500s Italy which is part Renaissance wet-dream and part contemporary. Benjamin Cisterne’s lighting – resplendent in Renaissance oranges and golds – shines, and imbues the scenes with candle-like warmth; his use of lightboxes as a moving light source is touching and effective, especially in the final moments of the production.
When I met with Evans last year, he explained how he was interested to explore the idea of period and contemporary, and what they might mean for a modern audience. “I’m really interested in what would happen if the costuming happened to be period but everything else about it had a contemporary sensibility,” Evans said. And this is where this Romeo and Juliet takes its inspiration – in taking one of Shakespeare’s most well-known plays, and “trying to see how these [questions] work in conversation with people’s expectations of these plays. I’d like to fill their positive expectations of these plays, and also challenge anyone’s negative expectations.”
Evans’ cast are resplendent in their Renaissance finery, but their approach to the text is somewhat perplexing. There’s a fresh youthfulness to Kelly Paterniti’s Juliet, and she is perhaps the most modern of all the characters in the play – as in this production – as her defiance of her father’s wishes (and by extension the patriarchy) rings particularly clear. Alex Williams’ Romeo is youthful and energetic, but there is an anger which bubbles a little too easily to the surface. Jacob Warner’s Benvolio is convincing as the put-upon best friend of Romeo’s, but there isn’t particularly much to set him apart from a contemporary teenager. Damien Strouthos’ Mercutio is lewd and particularly contemporary (some might argue too much so), but he does well to bring the homoerotic tension to his scenes with Romeo and Benvolio, although we don’t particularly miss him when he’s gone. Tom Stokes’ Tybalt is quietly menacing, and there is a real tangible danger to the speed with which he fights – sword swinging back and forth with precision – and his death scene is underplayed, if a little abruptly. Angie Milliken’s Lady Capulet strains a little too much in her misplaced affections towards her daughter, while Justin Stewart Cotta’s Capulet is forceful and tangibly dangerous. Hazem Shammas’ Friar is a refreshingly unconforming portrayal of the teenager’s confidant and enabler; there’s a ‘let it be’ quality to him which seems to foreshadow’s Hamlet’s faith in the divine providence contained in the fall of a sparrow. Michelle Doake’s Nurse seems to come from a slightly different production to the one Evans intended, but there is a warmth and affection to her which is entertaining. Cramer Cain’s handful of roles are all unique, but it is his messenger Peter that is perhaps the standout.
If there is a downside to Evans’ production, it is the length of some of the speeches, and the somewhat static nature of some scenes, as well as the denseness of the text. Some characters, particularly the Nurse, have long passages where very little sense is discernible from the character’s verbose rambling; this could be part of the performace, it could be part of the way the text has been cut, it could also be part of the direction and/or voice coaching. Humour is injected into these scenes, not through language – even though the passages are humorous in their own way – but through body language and eye movements, as well as perhaps through our lack of comprehension of what is going on at all times. Some of the cast navigate the more visually dense passages with ease, but Mercutio’s loquacious Queen Mab speech is, perhaps unforgivably, too heavy-handed and too forceful here.
There are many nice touches to this production, the lightboxes being just one, as well as some of the transitions between scenes. In many respects, if Evans’ ambition is anything to go by, then it is fair to say this Romeo and Juliet is on the whole a success. There are just a few rather important things – like the delivery of speeches, and clarity of images – that could make this production shine with the light imbued within the costumes.

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