Misfiring millennial take on Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy
The RSC’s new ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is almost impressively tone deaf. Styled as a modern-dress production about knife-happy teens, it transfers down to London at a time when youth stabbings in the capital are massive news. And yet it has nothing to say about this, really: Shakespeare can be painfully illuminating of modern times, but this just feels like an aesthetic choice barely thought through – a jumble of posh kids swinging at each other for reasons that feel obscure in a contemporary context.
I appreciate it’s not like director Erica Whyman is exactly fighting the text here – it is literally a drama about kids killing each other.
You can see that she’s made a concerted effort to get in touch with the teenage pulse of Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy. Big names are eschewed in favour of actors who could mostly pass for teens (some are in fact actual schoolkids); the line about Juliet still being 13 is shoved pointedly to the fore; everyone’s a bit heteroflexible and listens to grime. But it doesn’t really work: sure, 13-year-olds still fall for older men. But that’s not what Whyman seems to really be exploring. There are teenage trappings everywhere, but it never seriously feels like it’s grappling with the radically different reality of teenhood in 2018, versus that of 1595. There is a reason the star cross’d lovers tend to be pitched a little older.
A lack of chemistry between Bally Gill‘s nice guy Romeo and Karen Fishwick’s gobby Juliet doesn’t help. There’s no real sense of them falling for each other – they just start chatting at the Capulet ball and immediately appear to be together, like one of those dull couples who appear to have simply existed since the dawn of time.
There is good stuff: I enjoyed Charlotte Josephine’s wreckhead Mercutio, and Michael Hodgson and Mariam Haque turn in detailed and thoughtful performances as Juliet’s parents, really making the most of their small roles. But it’s far too little to give the production nuance as a whole.
Even if you’re cool with the politics, if you’re talking about work liable to turn teens onto Shakespeare, this feels like a pale shadow of the Globe’s terrific 2016 ‘Imogen’. Or if it’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ you’re after, the Baz Luhrmann version still surely stacks up stronger. Young audiences would be better saving their money for the RSC’s excellent house-of-horror ‘Macbeth’, also at the Barbican, than this insensitive dud.
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I have to preface this review by saying I'm not the biggest fan of Shakespeare and haven't seen any of his works since studying them in school. I've always found the language of Shakespeare highly inaccessible and when I heard that this was a modern adaptation I had high hopes that I would find it easier to enjoy. Alas, this was not the case. The way the characters were portrayed, the accents, the language and the slang make it very difficult for anyone who is not a Londoner to decipher. The character of Mercutio is particularly difficult to understand being portrayed as a chavish 'youth' and is incredibly annoying and distracting to watch in action. There also seemed to be no amplification in use so any time the actors turned away from the audience the dialogue became a quiet mumble. Sitting quite close to the stage I struggled to hear what they were saying at times, I'd hate to be sitting towards the back of the theatre or hard of hearing. The set or lack thereof also made the whole performance a little lacklustre. There didn't seem to be much by way of chemistry on stage and at the performance I went to many of the actors missed lines repeatedly.
Sorry to say that I didn't really enjoy the performance at all and if, as I suspect, the point was to introduce Shakespeare to a younger audience then it failed miserably. Maybe I'm not the intended audience and as I said I'm already a little biased in my opinion on Shakespeare but it just wasn't for me. On a positive note, it was my first time in the Barbican and I have to say the theatre itself is a beautiful work of architecture.