Romeo and Juliet at the Sherman Theatre (2014)

The most striking aspect of the Sherman Theatre’s frenzied new modern-setting production of Rom and Jules (dir Rachel O’Riordan) is Sophie Melville’s original and stunningly complex interpretation of Juliet; a performance that functions in a space between traditional tragic ingénue on the one hand, and something more sassy, worldly and modern on the other.

Rather than contradict each other, however, these two elements converge to create a performative depth that presents Juliet as simultaneously child and adult, naive yet passionately self-determined. It’s Juliet as a 21st-Century teenager. There’s Bambi-eyed innocence when the text most demands it, but there’s also sass: some of Melville’s deliveries are pure innuendo (which sounds weird, I know, but trust me it really, really works), and it’s a testament to the actor’s skill and theatrical balance that neither one of these aspects ever comes to dominate the other.

It’s a sort of hinterland performance, one that rejects the standard interpretations of Juliet as either wholly innocent or entirely hubristic in favour of a more nuanced, if more difficult, presentation. Sophie Melville’s speech is likewise varied: in dialogue this often involves charging through line breaks and ignoring rhymes in an excited and frenetic tumble that mirrors the rhythms of teenage slang, while in soliloquy things are slowed down in such a way as to reveal a startling fragility. It’s brilliant.

Rom and Ju

This dualistic performance in fact works as a microcosm for the entire production, which is characterised by a keen awareness and exuberant exaggeration of the play’s inherent contradictions. Rachel O’Riordan directs a first half which is unadulterated Shakespearean Comedy (feuding families, gate-crashing teens and sneaking lovers), and a second half that’s fully Tragedy, a genre switch signified by the pre-interval volta of Mercutio and Tybalt’s deaths.

The staging is likewise bipartite, with a set that’s divided into two levels, an impoverished, slum-esque estate at the bottom, and a more opulent set of windows and balconies on the top, designed in such a way as to subtly suggest the shapes of classical Verona architecture in a nice nod to the play’s original setting. Initially I was wary of this “Romeo and Juliet on the estates” rendering of the drama, but I soon came round to the idea. Re-casting the uber-rich Montagues and Capulets as warring working-class gangs is particularly effective as a commentary on post-financial crisis Britain, and, let’s face it, in light of the recession, sticking to the standard presentation of the families as  wealthy elite, and then expecting the audience to sympathise with them, would have been somewhat of a faux pas. The concrete greys, the graffiti and substitution of swords for knives brings additional pathos to the drama, made all the more disconcerting by quite how modern the story seems when it’s told in this way (I hate the word “relevant”, but it’s probably apt). It would be overly simplistic to claim that O’Riordan has turned Romeo and Juliet into a play about street kids stabbing each other, and I wouldn’t tug at this thread too much, but it’s there if you must: the imagery of street crime making this a controversial rendering of Shakespeare.

RandJ

Also of note is Scott Reid‘s Mercutio, a tempestuous performance that’s equal parts volatile trickster and philosophical malcontent, it’s real fire-in-the-belly stuff. Chris Gordon is solid as Romeo, and it’s noteworthy that this is his professional theatre debut, but I would have liked to have seen some of his idiosyncrasies pushed even further; there’s a suggestion of cockiness that needn’t have been so restrained, I feel.

Anita Reynolds gets the biggest laugh as the Nurse, making her strutting entrance in a hot pink tracksuit, arms flailing and full of attitude. It’s definitely the most out-there performance, but it’s perfectly controlled, and Reynolds manages to rein in the exuberance in such a way that maintains her character’s identity without undermining the seriousness of later scenes.

So, yeah, it’s a really great production. It’s about the borders between child- and adulthood, poverty and excess, love and hate etc. This interest in dualism is reflected in everything from the set design to the performances to the music. Rachel O’Riordan doesn’t so much blur the boundaries of these things as she does violently smash them together. The resulting explosion is fierce and sexual and loud and sad and controversial and everything theatre should be. Go and see it.

Tom.

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6 responses to “Romeo and Juliet at the Sherman Theatre (2014)

  1. I love going to the theatre, thanks for this review.

    I’ve seen Tis Pitty She’s a Whore in a similar transcription into our modern world. It’s difficult to achieve but when it’s well done, it’s fantastic and it gives a modernity to the text. I’d love to see that version of Romeo & Juliet. The theatre here sometimes welcomes English plays in the original. (with subtitles) Let’s hope this one is on the list for next year!

    • Many thanks.

      Out of all Shakespeare’s plays, I think Romeo and Juliet is probably the easiest to transpose to a modern-day setting, just because the feuding families aspect is so ripe for interpretation. At least, that seems to be the case in my theatre-going experience. 🙂

      • You’re probably right, this play is easier to transpose than others.

        I’ve seen a version of Hamlet (in French) where the actor ended up naked on stage (soundtrack in the audience: giggles from the teenagers brought there by their teacher) while listening to Rage Against the Machine.
        It was…weird.

        • Whoa, naked Hamlet sounds… different. I’ve actually never seen Hamlet live (I don’t think I’ve got the stamina for it. It’d have to be a really good production).

          Having said that though, I once was Helen Mirren in Mourning Becomes Electra, which is 5 hours long (with 3 breaks), but it was incredible.

          I think for Shakespeare to be made modern it has to be very well done. Simply dressing the actors up in, for example, Nazi uniforms etc isn’t really enough to make it work.
          T.

          • Shakespeare is rather easy although I think Hamlet was the one I saw that required the most stamina.
            Try Corneille or Racine. Phew. You’d better not be too tired for Le Cid or Phèdre.

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