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Romeo and Juliet

  • Theatre, Shakespeare
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Romeo and Juliet, Almeida Theatre, 2023
Photo: Marc Brenner

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Rebecca Frecknall’s kinetic, romantic take on Shakespeare’s tragedy has terrific performances from Toheeb Jimoh and Isis Hainsworth

The Almeida’s in-house directing wunderkind Rebecca Frecknall tackles the Bard for the first time with a galloping production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ that doesn’t try and do anything too iconoclastic with the romantic tragedy, but nonetheless makes it feel fresh and thrilling.

Frecknall’s most fun innovation is to mash up Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ with Prokofiev’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Okay, it’s mostly Shakespeare, but there’s something powerfully atmospheric and delightfully basic about the sequences where the immortal string-and-horn interplay of ‘Montagues and Capulets’ kicks in and the youthful cast burst into taut, kinetic dance sequences.

Running at two hours with no interval, and with not much of a set to speak of, it’s a rare production that successfully conveys the play’s fairly wild timeline - the titular starcross’d lovers meet and marry in under 24 hours, and have taken their own lives just a couple of days later. Okay, their love lasts more than the length of a play, but Frecknall’s production really conveys the sense of their relationship as an out-of-control rollercoaster that neither is capable of leaving. 

At heart, though, it’s just a darn good ‘Romeo and Juliet’ that hinges on two fine lead performances. Toheeb Jimoh is great as a smoothie Romeo, taking the piss and generally looking like he’s having a wonderful time as he drifts through Verona falling for one girl after another. If he affects worldly wisdom, then Isis Hainsworth’s loveable Juliet is almost the polar opposite. Gauche and unworldly with her huge eyes goggling in alarm as her parents talk about her marrying and having kids, she is entirely believable as a sheltered teen whose life would almost certainly have turned out a lot more happily if she’d been allowed to be a child a bit longer. That doesn’t happen, but Romeo is clearly the better option than her parents’ uninspiring, cold fish preference Paris (James Cooney). When the two meet for the first time at the Capulet ball, they’re literally stunned by each other: the ‘two pilgrims’ speech is spoken almost in a daze, Romeo dropping the slick lover boy act, Juliet thunderstruck rather than flirty.

Frecknall’s hallmark as a director is intense empathy with her characters, an approach that goes down a treat with ‘Romeo and Juliet’, which is essentially a story about good people fucking up cataclysmically. It maybe feels like a stretch for Jimoh’s affable Romeo to gun down Jyuddah Jaymes’s sinister Tybalt – the only real wrong ‘un here – as revenge for killing his shit-stirring best pal Mercutio (Jack Riddiford). But it’s a powerful scene, the only fight that isn’t actually a fight as a shaking Romeo pulls a gun on Tybalt and proceeds to doom them both. (By the by, Frecknall has cut the bit near the end where Romeo fairly randomly kills Paris – possibly just to declutter the plot, but certainly it has the effect of making Romeo come across as a nicer chap).

There’s a tendency to go for a darker ‘Romeo and Juliet’ these days: the RSC did a very knife crime-centric one a few years back, and the Globe’s recent production really foregrounded it as a story of teenage suicide. That’s totally fair, but it detracts from the romance. Frecknall’s take isn’t a barrel of laughs, but it gives Romeo and Juliet’s love its due – they throw their lives away, but in some ways they checked out of this world when they met each other, not so much infatuation as revelation. Perhaps they could have been happy if the Italian postal system had worked better, but we’re left in no doubt that they love a lifetime in the hours they have.

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski


£18-£65. Runs 2hr
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