Romeo and Juliet
MATILDA WNEK finds a story of woe – but an inconsistent one – in an ADC production that hasn’t the vision to take its text all the way.
ADC Theatre, 3rd-7th May, 7.45pm, £6-10
Directed by John Haidar
It’s hard to understand to whom this production of Romeo and Juliet thinks it’s speaking. I went responsibly flanked with an informedly neutral cynic, aware that my love of high-intensity romance needed counterbalancing if we were to take this play on its own terms.
But there turned out to be no such thing. This production is more a messy feud between competing visions of the production than a hot-blooded telling of the “agony and ecstasy of the greatest love story of all time.”
The first clue is the striking disjunction between the production values and textual decisions. It’s billed as “inspired by the films of Coppola”, setting the “anarchic subculture of mafia warfare… against a bleak midwinter”, but you get none of the electricity and sharp drama of Coppola’s aesthetic or the brooding tension of post-war Italy. The opposition between the two houses is barely felt with any tension. It is not cold outside, there has not just been a war, and had the costumes relocated us to the 16th century, very little would be out of place.
What we are offered is a surprisingly classical style. Very little was cut, even the most undramatic episodes, and in this respect it was excellently done. Speeches were often brilliant, always clear, and long monologues possessed enough variety to stay remarkably compelling. Indeed, apart from a few clumsy mid-couplet cuts, the play sounded fantastic, presumably to the credit of precise direction of a strong cast.
Allowing so many characters such space did yield some good performances, but slowed the drama down hugely. Which is fine, but precisely not the “visual and visceral Easter Term Shakespeare” promised.
Photographs by Chrystal Ding
From which confusion, then, came the problem with our central couple. Buried somewhere in this very classical interpretation of the play were the eponymous pair, in two very unconventional characterisations. The motivation for these choices was never clear to me.
For either we are watching the story of a giant love, the engine of dramatic action that hurls two people into an incredible ultimatum: all or nothing, love or death, enough to reconcile two feuding families. If so, this production surely fails to tell it. We do not see evidence of Nick Rickett’s Romeo having undergone any change after Juliet; his airy talk about his initial love for Rosaline that Mercutio can comically deflate does not thicken into rapture. His strangely comic characterisation does not prepare us for a dramatic climax, and his flailing and bounding physicality make the balcony line ‘I’ll still stay’ practically ironic. I was sure it would be unable support the weight of the narrative when it later requires us to believe his total and unhesitating conviction.
Or, perhaps this is not this story they want to tell, and we are to endure Nick Rickett’s emphatic promises to the audience whilst barely ever looking at Juliet because it is precisely a play about over-proclamation: we are brought a tragedy of youth caught up in its own narrative, ending in the catastrophe of misguided heroism.
Although this makes more sense of Romeo, if this is their tale they seem to lose faith halfway through when the text calls for genuine tragedy. At which point humour is abandoned, they presume an intensity which we never saw happen, and the second half is redirected to the well-worn track of a surface reading. The lack of over-arching vision makes the production incoherent, and I struggle to see what motivated Haidar to really want to tell it.
Still. The eventual tragedy of the text is moving, and in the actual watching of the final scene you don’t care the emotional power hasn’t been earned – George Potts’ incredible performance as the Friar had me teary in his final speech. It also hosts a clutch of lovely moments, including Abi Tedder’s devastated Nurse, and the odd bullseye hit in Joey Batey’s rather scattergun performance as Mercutio.
Pheobe Haines, while strangely aloof from the rest of the play and lamentably unconnected to Romeo, makes a dedicated Juliet, and is totally captivating. She is also possibly the fittest thing you’ll see onstage this term, and that may just be worth the ticket price alone.