thu 30/05/2024

Romeo and Juliet, Almeida Theatre review - muscular action interspersed with moments of telling stillness | reviews, news & interviews

Romeo and Juliet, Almeida Theatre review - muscular action interspersed with moments of telling stillness

Romeo and Juliet, Almeida Theatre review - muscular action interspersed with moments of telling stillness

The scenes overlap so that characters are besieged by their past, present and future

Love and death are constant bedfellows: Toheeb Jimoh and Isis Hainsworth as Romeo and JulietImages - Marc Brenner

Rebecca Frecknall’s Romeo and Juliet burns like ice, paring back and tightening the script so that love and death are constant bedfellows. She underscores her vision with a thrilling, furious physicality, interspersing explosive fight scenes with steely dance sequences heightened by Prokoviev’s immortal Montagues and Capulets.

A Frecknall production these days arrives bearing the weight of high expectations; just whisper the words Summer and Smoke, Cabaret, or A Streetcar Named Desire, and most avid theatregoers will spontaneously combust. At her very best, this powerfully instinctive director creates productions that seem to plug straight into the nervous system, capturing every electrical impulse that drives the characters’ deepest desires. 

In the starkly potent opening sequence we don’t hear the prologue: instead it’s projected onto what looks like an impenetrable rockface (pictured below). Half lit human figures push against it, like prisoners trying to get out of a cell; their struggle looks impossible, futile until the moment when the whole rockface tilts over to become the horizontal bedrock of their bleak new world.

Frecknall has deliberately stripped the play of social context; her key innovation has been to edit the play so that scenes overlap, creating moments in which characters are besieged by their past, present and future. Rather than leaving the stage once their scene has finished, actors either freeze or move in slow motion round the central action, becoming ghostly witnesses to the escalating horror.

It’s a daring and effective device: when for instance, Juliet waits impatiently in her bedroom for Romeo to come and consummate their marriage, to her left we see the still twitching corpse of Mercutio. Shortly after when her nurse cries out to Juliet that Romeo is banished, we see Romeo, at that point in Friar Lawrence’s cell, turn his head as if he has it heard it directly from the nurse’s wail of despair.Isis Hainsworth’s Juliet is vivid, petulant, in the moment – a true teen struggling to accept the constrictions of her world. At points she comes across as a child, at others as an adult wise beyond her years. When her father talks to her about younger girls than her becoming mothers, she scrunches up her face in disgust. Yet for the balcony scene, she comes down into the garden and approaches Romeo as an equal, no impossible-to-attain ideal but a young woman striking a connection beyond the boundaries her parents have delineated.

Toheeb Jimoh’s Romeo – of The Power and Ted Lasso fame – exudes a commanding magnetism even as you can sense his hunger to escape the street violence that surrounds him. When he first meets Juliet you can hear his attraction in the woosh of his words. Yet you can also sense the deepening of his fascination from the raptness with which he listens to her. He too sees her as a gateway to a new existence; an apparent way to scale the rockface that confronts them all at the start.

This is a pacy production – two hours from start to finish without an interval – but the muscular action is interspersed with moments of telling stillness. For instance Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech, in which the wild imagery is often heightened by a hyperactive delivery, is recited here with quiet intensity by Jack Riddiford and it’s stronger for it. When Juliet, too, is seized by the horror that Romeo has killed her cousin Tybalt, you really become aware of how her emotions change tempo. After the panic and anger, her rationalism that "that villain cousin would have killed my husband" is delivered with almost meditative quietness, emphasising her stony resolve.

Some critics have given this production five stars and I can understand why. Yet while I admired the startlingly original vision and intensity that marks this out as a great production, I missed the humour with which Shakespeare simultaneously offsets and heightens his tragedy. As Juliet’s nurse Jo McInnes is likeably formidable, but normally her character’s bawdiness is an antidote to the iciness of Juliet’s mother. The humour is a pressure valve – here, and elsewhere, the sense is of a world without joy, in which no character has any chance of escaping their fate.

Even so, this is a radical and visceral take on one of the most difficult works in the canon to illuminate in a new light. In a city where epidemic levels of knife crime continue to take teenage lives, its emphasis on the claustrophobia of cultural violence is significant. At its dark heart, Hainsworth and Jimoh both deliver luminous performances. An important interpretation from one of our most distinctive directors. 


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