Having seen a lot of RSC productions in Stratford-upon-Avon and being awed by the quality (with the necessary exceptions) of the overall body of shows I had high hopes coming to see one in London. I was immediately impressed by the Roundhouse theatre space that is, in essence, a re-working of the RSC Swan theatre; it’s thrust stage giving the company a great deal of space to work with. They set about doing so with an energetic dynamism from the offset, with a wonderfully dramatic and precisely choreographed fight scene that looked like a ridiculous amount of fun. I mean, seriously, fire from the ground, swords and chains and everything. Lucky buggers.
The set was a wonderful servant to the show, giving a number of levels that were used excellently as well as the various entrances and exits. The lighting worked well with the set, casting dark shadows across the stage and giving the whole show a very dark and brooding atmosphere throughout. I felt that it could have been a bit lighter, with much of the lighting making it difficult to make out the action in much the same way as the music in the party scene was so loud that the actors forced to shout over it were hardly audible at all. Both the music and the lighting, however, were strong elements of the show. I especially enjoyed the music and dance in the party scene as well as the religious backing music to the Friar’s cell.
The acting bears up against scrutiny as well. Sam Troughton makes a surprisingly strong Romeo. With the character commonly being associated with a strong and assertive character he takes a more emotional angle and this comes across well. He strikes the tension in his character with such a desperate approach that we understand the lost character in his anguish. He connects the character more than just being the poster boy and does a very impressive job. Juliet, however, could have been stronger. A couple of times her speech felt directionless, as if she’d forgotten what the words actually meant. Her character seemed a bit shallow almost, as if she hadn’t fully understood all that was happening until her dramatic final scenes.
The way in which Jonjo O’Neill tried to make Mercutio comedic must be commended but it did appear as if he was trying to make something out of nothing and it felt like he was forcing a circle into a square hole. His overly outrageous mimes were certainly entertaining and gave him a defined character but I remain unconvinced by the decision to play him that way.
The best performance of the show has to be Noma Dumezweni. Her nurse had a character more fully formed than the rest of the cast with mannerisms and a living presence that was certainly missing in the rest of the supporting cast. She had moments where she dominated the stage and I thoroughly enjoyed her assured performance.
The show at this point in the review has lots of positive points. However, it was also riddled with odd directorial decisions that dragged it down. Opening with Romeo entering what must have been a modern-day monastery with a camera and being approached by a tour guide seemed to indicate that it would be a modern dress production. The modern dress, however, only continued for the title roles. This meant that while most people were marching around with doublets, capes and tights you had Romeo in a hidden jacket on a bike (yes, a bike) at times and Juliet in an arty shirt and converse shoes. I was struggling with this decision enough before all the characters entered at the death in modern dress, inexplicably changing from their doublets to leather jackets, jeans and the like. Even now I don’t understand exactly what the intention was behind this and how or why it was thought to be plausible.
Another odd decision was to add song into the final scenes. Without any warning and with no justification I can think of Balthasar begins to sing some of his lines in a very stylistic way that had no previous part in the show. The result was a jarring halt in the flow as I tried to work out why he was singing and as everybody seemed to lose what he was actually saying.
This was surprising as the rest of the show looked amazing. The non-modern costumes were good, as were the array of props and set that were brought on at various points. The masks for the party scene (which was probably one of the best scenes in the show) deserve special mention for both their functionality and their symbolism. The blocking was a display of confident and technically brilliant direction, the characters moving in patterns and shapes that were delightful to watch, however the more fundamental decisions on the stylistic approach to the show let Rupert Goold’s contribution down.
The show was not badly acted, in fact much the opposite, but the decisions to incorporate modern dress and to throw in stylistic odds and ends cluttered the show with unneeded images that hampered its ability to really connect with the audience. The actors do a good job in a show still worth seeing despite these artistic upsets.
Written by William Shakespeare; Directed by Rupert Goold; at the Roundhouse Theatre; Starring Sam Troughton, Mariah Gale, Noma Dumezweni, Jonjo O'Neill, Forbes Masson, Oliver Ryan, Richard Katz; runs from 30 November 2010 - 01 January 2011 as part of the RSC London Season.
John Ord (02/12/2010)