Romeo and Juliet at the RSC

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The moment you could tell it was going to be fantastic came early in the first act. The lights went down and the blare of jazz trumpets subsided into silence; the January rain lashing the outside of the theatre was forgotten and the darkness took on the hot, claustrophobic quality of an Italian night, the air thick with passion and threat. Into all of this strode the Capulets and the Montagues: sharply dressed, quick with their wits and even quicker to lose their tempers. The first scene was played with a distinctly light touch; every pun fully exploited the delicious humour of the language but also sought to bring out the bravado of men always watching their backs. These moments of laughter gave the audience breathing space but never allowed for genuine relaxation, even while they joked the Capulets fingered their knives longingly and there was always the sense that violence would surely break out at any moment. The play added to this building tension by cutting down on scenery in favour of rapid scene changes- often allowing one scene to spill into the next. The incessant motion was only broken when a knife was drawn accompanied by the lights suddenly dropping and a spotlight being focused on the blade. Playing both on the public’s awareness of knife crime and the mafia street gang mood, the knives in this production have a truly threatening quality, seeming to be loved and feared by the male characters in equal measure. The director (Neil Bartlett) is keen to bring out the brutality of violence, the contrast between the elegant rituals of behaviour and dress serve to bring out, even more clearly, the bestial nature of street violence. There is nothing honourable or gallant about Tybalt’s confrontation with Mercutio- Bartlett emphasises its essential pettiness and the squalid, yet intoxicating, appeal of violence to young men; how in a culture that values knives and machismo, pride will inevitably get the upper hand over good sense and bloody violence will, ‘disturb the quiet of our streets.’

The title characters stood in firm contrast to the rest of the cast. While the other women were calm and dignified, Juliet (Anneika Rose) was a wilful teenager who seemed like a bright spark trapped in the grim world of Verona. Compared to his violent contemporise Romeo (David Dawson) was carefree, almost foppish, in his words and motion. The key to any production of Romeo and Juliet lies in its ability to show the transcendent quality of love compared to the other emotions at work in society and this version made that conclusion inescapable.

Four stars

Running until the 24th of January, Courtyard Theatre, 7:15pm
Student tickets, £5.00
Running time 3 hours 15 mins

 

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