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Review: Romeo and Juliet

Shakespeare's attack on the senselessness of knife-crime is just as relevant today in the RSC's fresh, new gender-fluid production - and one teenagers can relate to.

Production photos by Photo by Topher McGrillis (c) RSC

Erica Whyman set out to stage Romeo and Juliet to appeal to teenagers the same age as its two “star-crossed lovers”. She wanted to “illuminate its freshness” so young audiences could recognise themselves and has cast real teens from across the UK in the company.

Verona is transposed to the urban streets of present-day London where, like in Shakespeare’s era, knife-crime is rife and on the rise. In 2017 the number of offences reached 37,443 in England and Wales. Grime culture, candle-lit vigils and quick-fire teenage banter are all scenes young people will be familiar with.

The result is thrilling: a gender-fluid production full of youthful vigour and energy. The Capulet’s house party, where Romeo and Juliet first lay eyes on each other under twinkling fairy lights amid frenzied dancing, is positively ‘banging’.

The set is stark, with bronze industrial panels on the wall behind and a giant multi-purpose brutalist cube – in turn Juliet’s bedroom, Friar Laurence’s chamber (with a vivid filmic projection of green fauna as a backdrop and birdsong sound effects) and finally, a tomb…

I was joined my 14-year-old daughter. We were both blown away by the engaging performances of the two leads. Glaswegian Karen Fishwick is very natural as Juliet. She totally captures the joy, passion and angst of a real 14-year-old with every nuance, from her casual attire (relaxed tops and leggings, of course) to fastening up her trainers when her mother and nurse are discussing a possible marriage suitor.

Juliet and Capulet – Karen Fishwick and Michael Hodgson

Juliet and Romeo – Karen Fishwick and Bally Gill

Coventry-born Bally Gill’s hoodie-wearing, hot-headed Romeo lives for the moment; he’s full of energy, endearing and streetwise. Their romance is beautifully played out – humorous, touching and ultimately moving. The famous balcony scene has Juliet dangling her feet over the edge of the cube.

Charlotte Josephine’s Mercutio and Josh Finan as Benvolio

Abraham, Benvolio, Tybalt – played by Nima Taleghani, Josh Finan, Raphael Sowole.

The writer/performer of Bitch Boxer Charlotte Josephine gives a memorable performance as a female Mercutio – full of swagger, banter and sexual innuendo in crop-top and sequinned bomber jacket; while Raphael Sowole has real stage presence as strong, silent Tybalt. Their knife fight scene is brilliantly choreographed by Kate Waters, a regular fight director for Coronation Street and Hollyoaks. Although it felt slight overkill having them return to the stage as ghostly figures.

One of my favourite performance is by Ishia Bennison – Juliet’s nurse. She is an absolute comic delight and had me in stitches!

Nurse and Juliet – Ishia Bennison and Karen Fishwick.

Interestingly, there are no mobile phones. I guess that would bode the question – why didn’t Friar Laurence text/call Romeo rather than send a letter?

Whyman’s gender-fluid casting also includes Beth Cordingly as Escalus, Donna Banya as Gregory and Katy Brittain as both Sister John and Apothecary.

In today’s society one of the most shocking examples of male violence is the reaction of Michael Hodgson’s erratic, emotionally abusive Capulet when Juliet doesn’t play ball, and refuses to marry Paris, that is after her mother does the classic: ‘Here is your father – tell him yourself’…

Romeo and Juliet runs at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until Sept 21 and will be broadcast live in cinemas on July 18, rsc

Running time: 2hrs 23 mins with a 20 min interval

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