BWW Review: ROMEO AND JULIET, Shakespeare's Globe

If there was controversy surrounding the use of light and sound at the Globe, the opening production of Emma Rice's second and final season as Artistic Director can only fuel the multi-hued fire. Romeo and Juliet, directed by the ENO's Daniel Kramer, is an irreverent feast of colour and music, but at times misses the truth and beauty of Shakespeare's timeless story.

The production teems with energy, which never dips for a second. Kramer transplants the play into a strange, manic dystopia filled with manic clowning and painted faces reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange. Everything from costumes to characterisation is hyper-realised and the spectre of death hangs over all. This performance keeps your attention and, fundamentally, that of tourists and schoolchildren alike.

During the interval, an Italian gentleman attending with his 16-year-old daughter exclaimed to me, "I didn't know Shakespeare was like this! I love it!" It was his first experience of the Bard and he didn't know the story of Romeo and Juliet. That in itself makes Kramer's production a success for the Globe.

As energetic and attention-grabbing as Kramer's interpretation is, however, there are times where style triumphs over substance, and emotional power is lost behind complex design. This is an issue even from the explosive opening, when Lady Capulet and Montague are wheeled out on medical beds from blinding light in grotesque costumes and make-up with two babies' coffins between their legs, as a man "bites his thumb" in a collapsed version of the usually elegant Prologue. While the subversive thinking behind this is interesting, its grotesque design eclipses the actual meaning of the scene.

This eclipsing is not to be solely be attributed to technical aspects of the production. Juliet's "Gallop apace" speech is lost - interspersed with fits and starts of Tybalt's stylised death at the hands of a gun that goes "bang". The idea is effective on paper perhaps, but the drama of both scenes is weakened by the interruptions of the other. Unless a Brechtian level of dissociation is the aim, this is a failure.

The balcony scene is much more successful, injected with a wonderful, self-deprecating playfulness and exasperation. It feels truthful, honest and contemporary. The couple's mutual awkwardness is instantly recognisable from millennial meme culture: laughing at one's own romantic ineptitude. The placement of Romeo in the audience also added a nice dimension of constant audience participation, which is part and parcel of the venue - along with the excited titter that rumbled along behind his stumbling attempts at moving through the crowd.

The addition of music, which seemed to be provided entirely by the three-piece orchestra placed above the stage, as well as erotic dancing of specifically cast dancers, added to the overall expression of emphatic production design. Ben de Vries's original compositions for the piece seamlessly alternate between a punk rave and haunting violin solos. Intentionally or not, Charles Balfour's lighting evokes a Baz Luhrmann-esque fantasty.

While all aspects of Soutra Gilmour's design were a triumph, it seems as though they would function more successfully as a separate art piece examining the human tendency toward violence, rather than as the locale for a performance.

A little less would be more, rather than a barrage of all the Globe's technical capabilities in one swoop. Similarly, character choices seemed to be based more upon insanity. The exception to this is the two titular characters, who also played dissatisfaction and juvenescence respectfully.

Edward Hogg in skinny jeans and lace-up biker boots brings an immature exuberance to lovestruck Romeo, tamed by a British, streetwise quality. His performance is delivered in a grating, almost-heightened R.P., but his youthful, urban physicality created a laddish, modern Romeo.

Kirsty Bushell's Juliet, clad in matching biker boots, stripy socks and a black silk negligee, evokes a British grunge musician in the first throes of awkward love. Bushell's performance is measured and finds the humour in the text with aplomb. In the final, tragic scene, both Bushell and Hogg are powerful and affecting, masterfully sustaining and measuring against the build of tension. This is one of the few moments where the emotion penetrates the faff.

Both Capulet and Montague parents feel formless and unbalanced. Martina Laird's Lady Capulet in particular is an ungrounded, distracting and constantly wailing caricature. Harish Patel's Friar Lawrence gives lolloping, thick monologues of verse that the audience often drowns in. Golda Rosheuvel as Mercutio is the standalone support, offering an irascible and ebullient performance, particularly during her death, balancing the evening's manic energy with the final throes of cursing anger.

Much of this production feels like it is trying too hard, whether with rainbows of lighting, Haka-like battle expressions or a man playing a dog for no discernible reason. While this Romeo and Juliet is a feast for the senses, it is all style and little substance; simple, affecting emotion eclipsed by pomp and fanfare. However, in the rare moments when beauty and truth is allowed to shine through, it does so blindingly.

Romeo and Juliet at Shakespeare's Globe until 9 July.

Read our interview with Kirsty Bushell

Photo Credit: Robert Workman

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From This Author Kelly McElroy

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