If I were a few years older and a few shades pinker I suppose I might feel obliged to stutteringly decry Ola Ince’s production of ‘Romeo & Juliet’ as ‘woke’, given the social justice-inflected slogans and statistics that are prominently displayed on the big electronic billboard on the middle of the stage. ‘When boys are taught the rules of patriarchy they are forced to deny their feelings’; ‘the number of youth clubs in London has halved since 2011’; it must be the first ever play at this address to end with an ‘if you were affected by any of the issues raised here today’ notice.
But while it seems extremely likely that Ince’s production will annoy the exact people you’d expect to be annoyed by it, I thought the billboard was an interesting idea in a mercurial show that often manages to be frustratingly dysfunctional and giddily fun at the exact same time.
The displayed messages help to push the themes Ince wishes to bring out in a plain, accessible way. But it does often feel like they’re doing the heavy lifting, message-wise. The captions strongly suggest that Romeo is an impoverished teen, suffering from depression and austerity… but Alfred Enoch’s affable, dapper Romeo doesn’t seem to reflect the person being described at all. Frankly, that person sounds more interesting.
In fact the Verona depicted on stage is more like a wild escapist fantasy than gritty reality, with the cast adhering to an ultra-stylish red, white and black colour code – terrific costumes from Jacob Hughes. It all feels lush and dreamy, bordering on hallucinatory. The most audacious scene is the Ostermeier-ish Capulet ball, where everyone is wearing head-covering animal masks and virtually all of Shakespeare’s text is replaced by a series of raucous punk rock songs from composer Max Perryment that mash tunes by the likes of Arctic Monkeys to the odd snippet of original verse. Technically Romeo and Juliet do still woo each other by song – but it feels like Ince has gleefully dynamited the scene.
Essentially Ince’s desire to offer up two hours of hard-hitting social realism and two hours of wild escapist fantasy at the same time is not entirely reconcilable. Kitchen sink regietheater isn’t really a thing. But just because it doesn’t always ‘work’ doesn’t mean it’s not good: I loved the wild, irreverent roar of the ball; equally, I think Ince is on to something in choosing to earnestly highlight the number of references to suicide in the play – it seems quite reasonable to interpret the star cross’d lovers as being depressed.
And there are lots of fine performances: Rebekah Murrell – who, incidentally, just directed a West End play, ‘J’Ouvert’ – is a compelling ball of energy as Juliet, who we first see kickboxing the crap out of a lackey; Silas Carson is genuinely chilling as an emotionally manipulative Capulet; Adam Gillen is a hoot as a Mark E Smith-esque Mercutio; and Sirine Saa has a nice take on the Nurse, playing her as a sort of put-upon PA.
It’s a shame Enoch’s over-slick Romeo never really clicks with Murrell’s Juliet. You have to think part of the reason is that the wooing scene is effectively cut out, and replaced with the songs. But the songs are great!
It’s a bit broken. Traditionalists will recoil. But it’s thrillingly imperfect.