Thursday, February 29

Romeo & Juliet – Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

On a wonderfully sunny evening, the weather gods behaved themselves, and we were treated to one of Shakespeare’s best loved plays.  Postponed from last year’s season, director Kimberley Sykes’ version has been eagerly anticipated, with its new viewpoint on this popular play, we ask – did this re-assessment pay off?

The set designed by Naomi Dawson, with its backdrop of trees, helps to soften the harsh set of scaffolding, rocks, and earth.  Earth is one of Sykes’ themes and can be seen as a symbol of nurturing growth, but earth also throws its arms around death which is a major part of the plotline.  When Sykes re-read the play, she was struck by a reference to an earthquake that had happened in Verona eleven years earlier.  At the time of the earthquake, the Nurse (Emma Cunniffe) was caring for Juliet (Isabel Adomakoh Young), and Lord and Lady Capulet (Andrew French and Ellie Beavan) were away from town.  Many perished including the Nurse’s own child, and the inhabitants of Verona had to rebuild their lives. Sykes’ reimagined version of the play highlights the growing anxiety by the younger Capulets and Montagues that they do not have a voice.  This is prescient for today’s young generation with issues such as climate change, and racism. 

With this in mind, Sykes has produced a play where the youth appear to have some fighting spirit, the language remains the same, but the costumes which are colour coded to the families, have a hint of military, even a resistance feel to their design.

Shakespeare’s plays are no strangers to music, and this one is no exception.  The Capulet’s party brings everyone together as the Montague’s invite themselves along, but there is not a lute in sight.   The strong rhythm and beat of the music designed by Giles Thomas, inspires dance which is interspersed with Shakespeare’s very own iambic rhythm.  To add to the party atmosphere, the monochrome colour scheme of the costumes designed by Chris Cahill, are replaced with gold, which is picked up by the lights to create a sparkly party feel. 

The mood soon turns to love, and Rosaline is soon forgotten, and the scaffolding set now really comes into play as the balcony scene, very often portrayed with a youthful, innocent, fragile Juliet, now sees an athletic Juliet, swiftly ascending the scaffold with Romeo (Joel MacCormack) climbing in hot pursuit. The downside to this scaffolding, is that it is tall, and anyone standing at the top talking to someone on the ground does seem to be shouting and rather takes away the romantic bond that Shakespeare intended.  I have to say that before the play began, I was dubious about the stark soullessness of the staging, but the clever lighting design by Ciaran Bagnall, and the use of pyrotechnics transformed a previously uninteresting set.  Technically it works very well, but one has to wonder whether a slightly softer design could have given the play a more sensitive approach to the human aspect of the story.

There were many innovative ideas in this play, the ‘Ghost’ style death scenes where following death the character stood up as though their soul had been pulled from their body and then stayed to witness the aftermath; the swords hanging in boxes that were smashed and pilfered before battle, the use of blood pallets against the white clothing to dramatize the loss of life. 

The pace is fast to bring home to us the speed at which the events take place, five days, and the heirs to two important wealthy families are dead.  The fast pace does have its drawbacks however, the character development suffers as even Shakespeare may have felt that this was a little rushed.  I didn’t really feel that I got under the skin of Romeo and Juliet, with their relationship lacking passionate embraces and loving glances.  What is gained in presentation does lose a little emotionally, but I cannot fault the energy of the play, and it is sure to attract a younger audience who may be studying Romeo & Juliet at school.

Overall, does this play work?  I thoroughly enjoyed the show, which was visually absorbing, but I feel that it needs to refocus a little and pay more attention to the love aspect, character development and to hear the beautiful language uttered by a couple in love.  I have to mention the wonderfully self-assured performance of Peter Hamilton Dyer as Friar Lawrence, he brought some calm to this frenetically paced piece.  What does work however, are the technical aspects of the stage design and the bells and whistles that make this play so visually absorbing.

I would not hesitate to recommend going to see this play, it is inventive and the wonderful setting at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre makes summer really feel that it has arrived.

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Reviewer: Caroline Worswick

Reviewed: 23rd June 2021

North West End UK Rating: ★★★