One of the most wonderful things about student theatre is the potential to disregard entirely health and safety regulations. In James McAndrew’s high-energy take on Romeo and Juliet for Nottingham’s New Theatre, visceral and lairy fight scenes established a world of boys obsessed with their penises and with their fists. Capulets and Montagues threw each other to the ground, whirled dangerously close to the audience on both sides of the traverse stage and danced on one another’s backs as they thrust their crotches towards one another in sexual daring. The youth-driven world of McAndrew’s Verona was fuelled by testosterone, meaning that confrontations escalated quickly and erupted into cruel and brutal violence, the drive to stab developing seamlessly from the desire to rut, to embrace and to dominate physically one another.
This was a bold and frequently daring take on Romeo. While at times the tone became rather too binary (quiet or shouty), the company created a world where male strutting and the performance of power dominated all. This ran from the mafia bosses Montague (Sam Greenwood) and Capulet (Tom Tolond) to the roaring boys who barked at one another and moved edgily from foot to foot, spoiling for a fight at all times. Aaron Tej’s Mercutio dominated these early scenes, his ranting became raving during the Queen Mab speech and his groin leading his performance, up until he finally pulled down his trousers and posed for Romeo during their verbal sparring.
The difficulty with the focus on making innuendo explicit (always by grabbing crotches) and escalating the tone so quickly was that it left the production very few places to go other than further up, and this came at the expense of language. The guiltiest party here was Diderik Ypma’s Romeo in a very weak performance that, as well as making numerous mistakes with the speeches, fell into the trap of trotting out poetry as if naturalistic prose. While the production was key to clarify the tone and energy of these scenes, the verse was so underplayed that the actors seemed almost embarrassed of it, turning formal speeches into throwaway grunts. Ypma in particular seemed to have very little understanding of the meaning of his lines, meaning that his interactions became very reductive, moments of simple action (there was no internal conflict, for example, as he attempted to leave Juliet for Mantua).
Happily, several of the other performances were excellent. Aimee Gaudin gave a fine Juliet, convincingly thirteen and confused. Gaudin grew in stature throughout the production, developing a confidence both in her relationship with Romeo and in her interactions with her parents, and her speech ahead of taking the potion was particularly moving. Her parents, too, were fascinating. Tolond snarled out of the side of his mouth, repressing his more extreme emotions so that his shaking fit in the arms of Friar Laurence had a tremendous impact. Lucy Bromilow was a terrifying Lady Capulet, her eyes wild and staring and her voice portentous as she plotted Juliet’s life choices. Her reaction to discovering the body of her child was beautifully played, a moment of shock followed by an almost complete shutting down, she lacking any ability to deal with what had occurred. And Will Hedges’ Tybalt was a suitably menacing presence, the austere and cruel counterpart to Tej’s Mercutio.
The throwaway approach to verse worked in the favour of Jake Leonard’s Friar Laurence, whose soft tones perfectly captured the fatherly parish priest. This caring Friar desperately wanted Romeo to be happy, and delighted in the early romance as well as comforting him in his later distress. Holly Daniels, meanwhile, did sterling work as the Nurse, talking freely over Lady Capulet and bantering wonderfully with Juliet, particularly as she lay prostrate on the floor panting heavily before delivering her message, while Juliet flapped her arms impatiently. The other standout in the smaller roles was Eoin Buckley as a sensitive, gentlemanly Paris who was endearing in his ‘holy kiss’ of Juliet at the Friar’s cell.
The problems of the verse remained, however. The production aimed to find a realistic emotional level that necessitated speaking the verse as if everyday language; yet this sat particularly oddly next to some of the more stylised directorial decisions. McAndrew’s eye for a good visual image included a balcony with a large white curtain, which was often deployed for silhouettes (normally evocative, though the appearance of the shadow of Tybalt’s Ghost rather detracted from Juliet’s speech) and the beautiful image of Juliet and Tybalt’s bodies both appearing, walking, to Romeo in the crypt. Tybalt’s body moved away from Romeo, refusing to be touched, while Juliet’s collapsed eventually into his arms. Yet the decision to play the final act in darkness, while visually very interesting and allowing for a convincing set of misunderstandings, slowed the action down to an absolute crawl as characters stumbled around and took forever to finally light on the bodies. In a long production, the glacial pace of the closing scenes killed any momentum the production had previously established. Similarly, while the decision to start with Friar Laurence being interrogated by Jemima Rathbone’s Escalus and delivering his final long explanation worked wonderfully to establish even more firmly the production’s sense of inevitability, the removal of this speech from the final scene meant that much of the dialogue simply didn’t make sense, as Escalus referred to a story by the Friar that he had not in fact told.
This was a frequently hysterical production, particularly in its energetic and visceral opening half. Yet the decisions that detracted from the sense and the disappointing handling of language served to hold the production back from truly taking off. Some lovely visual images and great individual performances needed a firmer anchoring, but the production deserves credit for breathing life and energy into an all-too-familiar tale.