Friday, February 10, 2023

Romeo & Juliet – families feud and lovers die in the capital of knife crime and haute couture (Lyric Theatre until 5 March)

It’s the summer of 2022 and Verona’s rival fashion houses are at war. A physical fight at the start of each act demonstrates that the verbal venom can quickly turn to violence when the Montagues and Capulets collide. So when Romeo Montague gets the hots for Juliet Capulet and they marry in secret, it’s never going to end well. Even so, the body count really ratchets up as friends and fiancés become entangled in Shakespeare’s tangled web of medicinal deception and deep depression in the capital of knife crime and haute couture.

The Lyric’s production of Romeo & Juliet is certainly ambitious. Previous local productions I’ve reviewed by c21 Theatre (2017) and Bright Umbrella (2018) had small casts and portable sets. The Lyric spreads the roles out over 16 actors (though only 15 appeared at the curtain call of the performance I reviewed!)

Robin Peoples’ giant set wraps around a Verona piazza with space for a colonnade, the mandatory balcony (above a garage door), the church and even a street café. A garish LCD advertising sign and espresso cups remind audiences that the action is set in modern times … though mobile phones are curiously absent.

Gillian Lennox’s costumes really sell the concept. Particularly the Capulet range of statement outfits, with Lady Capulet wearing the trousers (and the best dresses) in her household as Rosie McClelland assuredly takes on a role that successfully swaps lines traditionally delivered by her on-stage husband (Patrick Buchanan). The house of Montague feels a bit more downmarket, Castle Court to the Capulet’s Victoria Square, perhaps just a product of the blocking and the lighter dialogue.

The first act zings along. The opening fight. A well-to-do suitor is snubbed. A spot of unrequited infatuation. Gatecrashing a party. And the sense of forbidden love igniting a spark that could burn the whole house(s) down. For once Juliet’s speech on the balcony is actually out of Romeo’s reach! The lip-syncing revelry at the fashion show launch party is superbly directed. A fist-bumping friar. A menopausal nurse (the brilliantly expressive Laura Hughes) acts as confidant, passing messages and encouraging the outlawed liaison. The natural age range of the cast works quite well in establishing the domestic order of the families. It’s common for productions to make sizeable cuts to the original script, and Anne Bailie’s adapted version serves the production well.

It’s after the interval that the handbrake seems to come on. Romeo & Juliet is a tragicomedy, yet the feeling of tragedy is somewhat transitory while the comedy is rarely as raucous as it could be. The appearance and disappearance of Juliet’s bed – twice – is terribly elegant, but distractingly slow, losing emotional pace at a point in the play that the audience should surely be really leaning in to the growing feeling of dread rather than wondering just how much original music Chris Warner had to compose to cover the scene changes. The impressive soundtrack throughout the show is nearly continuous. A favourite moment is when the church doors open and organ music beautifully floods the piazza. But the low-level musak during some other scenes was irritating and felt like it could usefully have been faded out after establishing the new location.

Ray Sesay’s Friar Laurence is always a warm presence on the stage, bright and cheery, mirroring the Nurse in his fostering of good relations between fractious communities. (Though his lack of even feigned reaction to the discovery of three bodies in his crypt was a peculiar decision.) A little more spark and sizzle between Romeo (Adam Gillian) and Juliet (Emma Dougan) – or even lingering tender touches – would make them a more believable pairing. Though given everything else that Shakespeare is throwing at the plot, maybe subtle romance isn’t a crucial ask. It’s definitely the kind of show I’d want to return to near the end of the run to see how it’s developed and settled.

It’s pleasing to realise that nearly half the cast is made up of alumni from the Lyric Drama Studio back in the south Belfast theatre (including a couple of performers from last year’s excellent Blue Stockings production that really deserved to be in front of bigger audiences on the main stage): Steven Cook, Eugene Evans, Aaron Ferguson, Thomas Finnegan, Finnian Garbutt, Tiarnán McCarron and Lucy McCluskey.

On stage, we see parents creating the circumstances into which their children fall. We witness older adults bridging divides. And we watch impulsive youngsters acting rashly. It’s a production with bold ambition and courageous design choices. There’s no doubt that the Philip Crawford’s production of Romeo & Juliet for the Lyric gets the story across. The school groups amassed in last night’s audience enjoyed a novel and thoughtful production of a classic play on a scale rarely seen on a local stage.

Romeo & Juliet runs at the Lyric Theatre until Sunday 5 March.

Photo credit: Carrie Davenport

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