The scene is set for a perfect summer romance: a warm evening breeze whispers through the trees in Wadham Gardens causing the branches to sway dreamily, the audience gaze at the softly lit grassy stage in quiet anticipation. It is peaceful. Suddenly the sound of cries and laughter peal through the air as the cast of Shakespeare’s greatest love story cavort on to the stage from all sides.
Their costumes are so loud I wonder if I will be able to hear them speak their lines; some enter on foot, whilst others glide in on bicycles! And they are carrying instruments… When the cast begin their first musical number, ‘Rip It Up’, I see various male members of the audience visibly flinch. Even I start to feel slightly perplexed by the unexpected musical rendition. If I had read details of the performance on the Oxford Shakespeare Company website I would have known that the show was being advertised as a ‘rock and roll love story’ and that this version of the play was set in 1950’s Oxford. The old ‘twist on a classic’ chestnut is frequently attempted but is more often than not unsuccessful. I was interested to find out how this production would fare.
The cast consists of just eight actors, many of who double up roles throughout the performance, making lightening quick costume and character changes. To their credit, I did not realise until half way through the play that such extensive doubling up was occurring as it was so seamlessly done. The most successful character chameleon was the versatile Chris Jordan who slipped from playing the camp rascal Mercutio to the militaristic Paris with ‘blink and you’d miss it’ ease. Katie Krane was also noteworthy as Juliet’s nurse, delivering the play’s comic lines with great gusto in a production where every opportunity for humour is seized upon.
Even various tragic moments are given comic touches, such as in the scene in which Friar Lawrence tells Romeo (Alex Tomkins) of his banishment from Verona. Tomkins played this scene like a spoilt, lovesick brat and as the friar berates him for his ‘womanish tears’ we are reminded once again that Romeo is a teenage boy as well as a tragic hero.
If someone had told me beforehand that the play was going to be interspersed with 50’s style music and dance I would have expected it to be a bit naff. But it wasn’t. If it had been done badly or attempted in a half hearted way it could have been terrible. But it wasn’t. Once I had gotten over the shock that I was watching Romeo and Juliet with interludes of 50’s song and dance I really started to enjoy the play. The acting and musical performances from the entire cast were top quality. Overall the music enhanced the effect of Shakespeare’s language rather than detracting from it: the songs were mainly used to give the party scenes new life and to cement Romeo’s status as self-indulgent crooner.
The only wildly inappropriate musical number comes at the close of the performance when the lovers have put an end to their troubles and their parents are gathered around their lifeless bodies. Anything moving about this final scene is obliterated when the corpses jump up and start singing Eddie Cochran’s ‘Three Steps to Heaven.’ It was so horribly camp that it made me wonder whether the whole production had been intended to be slightly tongue in cheek. Overlooking this minor blemish, Guy Retallack’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet carries off the 50’s twist with great success and, complemented by the dreamy natural scenery of Wadham Gardens, is the ideal end to a balmy summer’s day.
4 stars out of 5
‘Romeo and Juliet’ runs until 22nd August in Wadham College’s Walled Gardens, with student tickets priced at £15.