Romeo & Juliet
By William Shakespeare
Shakespeare At The Tobacco Factory production
Directed by Polina Kalinina
Theatre Royal, Winchester
Wednesday 3rd June 2015, 7.30 pm
Paapa Essiedu … Romeo
Daisy Whalley … Juliet
Oliver Hoare … Mercutio
Craig Fuller … Tybalt
Sally Oliver … Nurse
Fiona Sheehan … Lady Capulet
Timothy Knightley … Capulet
Chris Garner … Montague / Apothecary
Paul Currier … Friar
Joey Hickman … Balthasar
Callum McIntyre … Benvolio
Hannah Lee … Gregory / Peter
Jack Wharrier … Samson / Paris
The Tobacco Factory (from Bristol) has a deserved reputation for lively Shakespeare productions. I preferred their Two Gentleman of Verona to the RSC production by a long way. For Romeo and Juliet they have engaged young Russian director Polina Kalinina and gone for high concept. The other reviews I’ve read give it four stars.
The programme makes much of Paris during the student protests in May 1968, as well as Lindsay Anderson’s If …. so that’s the setting and costume. By the way, Mr Anderson was quite vehement that If was followed by four dots (as in the poster illustrated in the programme), not by three as in the programme text. So modern dress as in Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film. I have yet to see a fully-satisfying version of the play, one that matches Lurhmann. I say that every time I see it. And after this, I still haven’t. Furthermore, let’s actually think about the programme’s attention to May 1968 student protests, the film If …. and authority. Yes, May 1968 and If …. are closely related and both are about reactions to authority. But is Romeo & Juliet about that at all? Perhaps there’s one strong moment in this production when after the opening gang brawl (brilliantly done with clanging metal piping), The Prince comes in with a megaphone and stops the fight. In the shadows are two black clad riot policemen, reminding me of the 1968 (and later) French slogan “CRS=SS”. OK, but like so many high-concept Shakespeare, the lengthy notes on If …. and May 1968 resonate at that point, but has the rest of the play got anything to do with it, beyond costume choice? I can’t see it. I don’t think we see the riot police again either.
The set is a plain stage with a municipal park children’s stand-on roundabout centre stage in the first half. A bed is placed on it in the second half. The theatre is stripped to its black-painted back wall with ropes and lights and bits of metal on view (this is becoming a cliché recently). Clearly they take the play into the round if need be … in fact the Stephen Joseph at Scarborough is next week, so they will be in the round there. Above the rotating centre (roundabout or bed) a huge circular mirror is angled above the stage. Two criticisms come here. First, from the circle, the mirror performed no function. You didn’t see the main action reflected (though we were dead center), just a corner of the roundabout and some bare stage. So it was a complete waste of time from the circle. Maybe it worked downstairs.
The second criticism is that with no back cloths and a bare wall right back to the loading door, it echoed. It echoed like a loading bay at times. You do need a soft surface or a deflecting surface for optimum sound. So while the set looked good, and the metal bars of the kids’ roundabout could be removed to form weapons, it had functional issues on a proscenium stage. And most of the tour will be proscenium stages.
The first half has some excellent choreography, in the fight scenes and in the wonderful party with dancing. It’s the integral dilemma of the play … the more you make of the violent action in the first half, the more bereft of action the second half feels. It did here. Part of the concept was that the Montagues looked like hippies. Romeo got a white and gold military jacket, that looked very well on Paapa Essiedu … with a bare chest it made me think of Jimi Hendrix. Mercutio had a bare chest covered with green scribble and pictures. Mercutio as a crazed hyper hippy character has ben done for three productions in a row now. Next year’s Kenneth Branagh Season production will see Derek Jacobi as Mercutio so that will definitely shake it up.
In contrast, the Capulets looked like the “straights”, led by Tybalt in a suit waistcoat and tie. Good idea. I like markers for Montagues and Capulets. The notes made much of 1968 costume but … well, it certainly wasn’t perfect for 1968. None of the jeans were hipsters, only one was slightly flared. Purple velvet loon pants was good, but they weren’t flared enough. No one who was cool enough to find a white Hendrix jacket would have combined it with straight jeans with turn-ups. Possibly that was deliberate … Essiedu’s Romeo was extremely gauche at times, which was endearing for the role. They emphasized young, and for a change, the line about Juliet “not being yet fourteen” was retained as Shakespeare wrote it and also printed large in the programme. There’s a tendency to either cut it or add a year or two. I have my doubts about retaining it.
The women’s costume is more of an opportunity. Lady Capulet changed every time we saw her, which was overdoing it to the point if ‘Oh, so who’s this?’ every time she came on in new gear. They went for comedy with the nurse … rightly so as it’s the only funny part, but curlers, fluffy slippers and a petticoat veered too much to pantomime dame, as did her later clothes. The nurse was younger than the norm, as was Lady Capulet (who says she was even younger than Juliet on marriage, so in the text she is only twenty-eight). The nurse was given an early sixties bouffant combined at times with hot pants. Hot pants may have been invented earlier, but their heyday was 1971 onwards. The white shiny boots were right. OK, very few of the audience are experts on fashion history, but to me the mix was a bit like a budget CD called “Sixties Music” which combines Release Me, White Rabbit, Telstar, Boom Bang-A-Bang and Like A Rolling Stone as if they were all somehow related.
The Capulets Party
On action, the major party dance scene tried to combine 60s moves with much later music. Fair enough, authentically we might have the Grateful Dead for 1968, but I defy any choreographer to make that party dancing work to ‘Dark Star.’ There was a lot of music, much of it sound effect or punctuation, and all credit to Tom Mills as composer and sound designer. There were also a couple of what sound like authentically hippy-dippy records played over scenes, and as I didn’t recognize either, I assume they’re originals. First rate sound and music.
I’m much less sure about the lighting plot. The balcony scene saw Juliet lit on the (now) empty roundabout, while Romeo delivered that crucial speech (But soft, what light through yonder window creeps …) in darkness next to the proscenium arch. As Paapa Essiedu is a black actor, you couldn’t pick up anything of his face in spilled light either. Ten seconds in darkness? Effective and draws you in … the whole speech in darkness? No, really bad idea.
It was a dismally small audience, but we both felt a certain hesitation in timing and pausing hanging over the whole company, Maybe it was the lack of audience response … if they’ve been playing to larger and more lively audiences, they might find themselves holding a micro-second for a laugh, or murmur of appreciation, or indrawn breath of shock. And it didn’t come. You expect to lose focus on lines during so much action, and they did. But there was also a jerkiness about the interaction of lines between speakers. My companion said “they always seemed to be acting rather than inhabiting the parts.”
Strong points include the dance at the Capulets’ party, the killing of Mercutio, the Tybalt-Romeo fight, Romeo’s twitching death, Juliet’s throat slitting, Tybalt’s no messing around death, Paris’s quick dramatic death … this director does really, really good dying … and particularly the way they cut a lot of shilly-shallying around in the final Romeo / Juliet death scene. They got down to it with excellent cutting. Stage blood was good, shocking but not bloodbath excessive. I’m not being sarcastic in commending the handling of death scenes. People die with such verbosity in this play that it’s extremely hard to do it this well without any laughs at all from the audience. Essiedu was an extremely good Romeo.
My overall assessment would be three stars. I’ll concede that it might add one more in a full theatre with a much more responsive young audience, for the first half at least. My companion gave it two.
THE THEATRE ROYAL, WINCHESTER
I’m repeating myself from last time, but the Theatre Royal has everything going for it … except an audience. Great small / medium size theatre building, good public areas, easy parking nearby, wide choice of restaurants very near, nice snack bar, very pleasant helpers and staff. But it’s that Hampshire thing shared with Southampton. Where’s the audience? Looking at the list of productions, the Tobacco Factory is one of the two best companies coming through there. They’re going to the Stephen Joseph in Scarborough next week, Salisbury Playhouse at the end of the month, so all good theatres. So why was Winchester only a quarter to a third full? And a lot of that was school parties. We felt sorry for the cast. It must be so dispiriting to put so much effort in for so few people. I suspect the trouble is simple. To build a theatre going habit in an area, you need a dozen good productions minimum in a year … people might then go to three or four choices. I could see this, and Flare Path, as major first-rate touring productions. Nothing else on the theatre’s planned year seemed at the same level.
OTHER PRODUCTIONS OF ROMEO & JULIET REVIWED ON IS BLOG: