“We are two worlds apart.” Joseph Meighan’s melding of 1990s pop culture with the 16th century tale of two tragic young lovers is a bold and innovative take on what is probably Shakespeare’s best-known play. As with much of Shakespeare’s work, the story of Romeo and Juliet is timelessly malleable and has been retold in countless formats, including as musicals, opera and on film, since it was written in around 1595. It has been set in any number of time periods and situations with the deep-seated hatred between the Montague and Capulet families reflecting every conflict throughout history, as the cast movingly reference at the end of the play. Everyone knows the plot: Romeo, a Montague, sneaks into a Capulet masked ball and it’s love at first sight when he sees the young and beautiful Juliet. While her family are arranging for her to marry their kinsman, Paris, the young couple’s illicit love blossoms, and they marry in secret. Ultimately fate, feuding and their families contrive to ensure that their ending will not be a happy one.
Meighan’s production, staged in 2016 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, opens in a Verona nightclub with a Backstreet Boys cover band, all white suits and cheesey dance moves. Then a fistfight breaks out between the opposing family factions, fights that recur and escalate throughout the play, in visceral and almost painfully graphic, perfectly choreographed scenes.
The predominantly young, energetic cast, are all excellent, bringing a renewed vibrancy to the tale. Becky Myers is totally credible as Juliet, playing her as a willful teen in the first throes of passion who suddenly is confronted with adult problems. Haroun Al Jeddal has a freshness as Romeo, a Harry Styles lookalike full of impetuousness and ardour. A standout performance is that of Mark Butt, portraying Friar Laurence as a weed-smoking Buddhist dispensing wisdom and ultimately creating the miscommunication that will seal the couple’s fate. Beverley Stuart-Cole must have a special shout-out for her Nurse, often an unenviably dull role, for bringing out the comedic and tragic sides of the character.
Meighan’s use of music at strategic moments is masterful, with carefully chosen and well-performed pop lyrics that reflect and advance the narrative while also reminding the audience of the updated setting. Fleeting nods to Hamlet, Star Wars and video gaming are fun and bring a smile of recognition.
The Altrincham Garrick Playhouse is clearly not that large, but good use is made of the limited performing space, with a triangular raised platform in the middle of the stage that is nightclub, bed-chamber, Friar’s cell and finally crypt. In this streamed filming, there is an issue with the occasional creakiness of the 90-year-old stage which may simply be due to the placement of microphones for the recording. Fortunately this does not detract too much from the action.
Updated versions of Shakespeare aren’t always universally popular, but Meighan’s direction ensures this modern and clever interpretation refreshes the narrative, while seamlessly retaining the original text and interweaving the on-going themes of love and hate across the centuries that even tragedies have not succeeded in resolving.
This play has lost none of its impact since 2016 or, for that matter, since the 1590s. A highly recommended retelling of a classic tale.
Romeo and Juliet is available to view online from tonight (18th March) until 22nd March and then encore screenings take place from the 25th – 29th March all at 7:30pm. Tickets can be purchased via https://www.altrinchamgarrick.co.uk/shows/romeo-juliet/
Reviewer: Carole Gordon
Reviewed: 17th March 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★