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From the Shakespeare Tobacco Factory comes a brutally intimate adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. Director Polina Kalinina transforms the play into a take on the 1968 riots in Paris, setting the Montagues and the Capulets against each other in this difficult background. Yet, when combined with a sparse stage setting, the result is striking and challenging for the audience.
The greatest love story of the western world centred on a playground roundabout in this production, the handlebars coming apart to serve as weapons in the numerous fight scenes. Following an eerie a capella song, the initial fight scene was incredibly hectic for an opening sequence. Having never read or watched Romeo and Juliet before (something of a cardinal sin for an English Literature student), I’ll admit to being taken aback by this loud and harsh start. However, once the play had settled down and I had figured out who was a Capulet and who was a Montague, the actors’ performances started to shine.
Paappa Essiedu was particularly strong as Romeo, being both commanding and childish at the same time with his friends and with Juliet. From intimate moments with Juliet (which at one point saw them both in their underwear – slightly awkward when watching with the parents) to his fights with Tybault and Paris, Essiedu stood out as particularly at ease within his character. Essiedu is clearly talented, and for a young actor his future looks to be successful. Daisy Whalley, who played Juliet, also did incredibly well, embodying the naivety of Juliet’s young age and interacting strongly with Romeo – not bad for an actor who only debuted last year.
It is somewhat easy, however, to compliment the stars of the show, but for me the stand-out actor was Oliver Hoare who played Mercutio. His slightly uncontrollable and intensely physical movements took well to the 1960s setting, reminding me (perhaps stereotypically) of a 60s teenager experimenting with drugs. However, his clear joy at life – and his frequently bawdy references – created an interesting dynamic to what was otherwise quite a stark and shocking play (though again, it was slightly awkward to watch with the parents when he started making out with a guitar).
This production of Romeo and Juliet, however, seems to only work well in an enclosed, round theatre like it is at the Dukes. I read one review of the production which criticised the performance heavily because it was played on a typical theatre stage, and I can imagine that some of the quieter moments would have been lost in a bigger arena. Essiedu’s brooding presence on the balcony while Juliet is speaking would certainly have been difficult to recreate in a less enclosed theatre, and Mercutio’s interactions with the audience would not have been half so amusing if they hadn’t happened at close quarters.
That said, at the Dukes it worked perfectly, particularly during the death scenes. To see Essiedu’s Romeo actually frothing at the mouth after taking poison or Mercutio and Paris being covered in fake blood is something that is particularly striking at close quarters. A younger member of the audience had to leave as soon as the interval started for fear the actors had actually died. Even though I knew how the play ended before watching, Romeo’s and Juliet’s deaths were still emotionally hard to watch, and I think that is testament to the quality of both the performances and the staging of this slick, highly consummate production.