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Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

Published on September 13th 2005.

This is a play about youth, its indiscretions, emotions, passions and tribal warfare. It is made much worse by the futile intransigence that so called experience brings.

Romeo and Juliet as directed by Jacob Murray offers a pleasant enough evening at the theatre without offering the playgoer innovation or creativity. It is a difficult play by a playwright still learning his trade. This production fails to ignite one’s enthusiasm.

The story is timeless. Very few people are unaware of it. Once upon a time, two youngsters think they have fallen in love. They do not live happily ever after. It is a difficult play to perform with any new insights. It does not bear deep examination. The main appeal of the storyline is to those who can suspend their imagination and, at the same time stretch their credibility to ignore basic plot.

The poetry is beautiful. It has some wonderful verse in its love passages. The totality of the play does not equal the sum of its parts. The power of the play comes from and through such verse. It needs performances of the highest calibre to highlight such beauty.

Many years ago, I visited the RSC to see a production of this play directed by Michael Bogdanov. Wonderfully, Michael Billington called it 'Alfa-Romeo and Juliet'. The ideas behind this appear similar here. This is the world of 'La Dolce Vita' - smooth Italian suits and Mafia Dons bestriding the stage but, in this production to considerably less effect than Bogdanov’s warring Montagues and Capulets.

The problem in this version is that the Verona portrayed here, does not ( to my mind ) catch the essence of 1960’s Italy as portrayed in the many Fellini type movies around at that time. In many ways a similar problem to the one faced by Shakespeare with one major difference. Critics can now allege the Verona of Jacob Murray does not accord with their view because of such films. An impossibility for the Shakespearian audience who had no way of questioning what was set before them, even though the playwright was most unlikely to have ever visited his chosen location.

This production fails to highlight the folly, tribal nature, impetuosity of youth, or to show the viciousness of the Capulet/Montague hatred. The early scenes show relatively restrained English hooligans not Italian hotheads . Too genteel by far. Unless one feels violence, passion and tension pervading the Verona air, a great deal of the power of the play is dissipated.

I liked Andrew Garfield’s Romeo. By the second half he started to find the energy and passion which this part needs. Gugu Mbatha – Raw is a fascinating Juliet. Playing a 13 year old who falls in love at an instant , marries within 3 hours and has one night of unbridled lust is not an everyday occurrence. She is young enough to be credible, sensual enough to be believed and erotic enough to just be of an age where discovery and exploration are starting to interest her. It is a very promising performance in one of classical acting’s most demanding female roles.

I think the performance of a Shakespearian play is all about text and acting. Many of this cast spoke too quickly. Too much of what they said was indistinct. I had the feeling that some did not understand their words. The acting was good in parts. Maggie Mccarthy was excellent as the 'Nurse' and I also liked Andrew Buchans 'Mercutio' and Faz Singhateh as 'Tybalt'.

I enjoyed the production. Not one that will linger in my memory but it had its pleasurable moments.

Richard Burbage

Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester
The play runs until 22nd October
Box Office 0161 833 9833

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