By Watermill Theatre
Tuesday 16th May, York Theatre Royal
This week is York Shakespeare festival, and as an ex-drama student and theatre lover, there was no way I could not indulge in some Shakespeare and still look myself in the eye everyday (which I love to do, intensely, every morning). So I bit the bullet – and cried into my purse – and booked to see both of Watermill Theatre’s productions at the Theatre Royal this week. The first of these was Romeo and Juliet, which I think is among most people’s favourites, myself included. I was excited that it was a modern adaptation, although still sticking to the original dialogue, as I’ve never been a fan of traditional Shakespearean era at (save for one magical version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Judy Dench, yes, JUDY DENCH), and featured live music.
As soon as we sat down it was clear that the music was going to be an integral part of the performance as there was a mic front and centre and actors milling around on stage tuning instruments, and not long after we’d found our seats they kicked off with a song. The whole cast were talented musicians, with some of the female cast members giving truly stunning vocal performances (seriously, Aruhan Galieva who played Juliet and Lauryn Redding who played the Nurse have two of the loveliest voices ever to grace my earholes). The live music was present through much of the play – at times it did feel a little clumsily inserted into the narrative, but it also provided some of the most standout moments in the production, for instance a beautiful sequence in which R + J get married. It also gave the production something of a filmic quality as music often smoothed transitions between scenes, which I loved.
The play was largely set around ‘Capulet’s Bar’ in what seemed to be modern day but with a grungy, at times steam-punky edge. The setting of a bar worked well, although could be said to make the rivalry between the Capulets and the Montagues a bit vague. The costume gave the production cool and worked well with characterisation, especially in emphasising Juliet’s age, and I think they could have gone even further with the steam-punk elements to push a brooding, otherworldly feel if that’s what they were after. But I want everything to be steam-punk, brooding and otherworldly, so there’s a chance I’m being biased!
In terms of performances, the entire ensemble cast are clearly incredibly talented actors as well as musicians, with some standing out more than others. This was really a production in which the supporting character actors shone; Redding knocked it out of the park as the hilarious Nurse, providing some much needed comic relief, Rebecca Lee played a dreamy and gently comedic Friar Laurence, and Jamie Satterthwaite and Emma McDonald were the perfect Papa and Lady Capulet. Unfortunately, Romeo and Juliet were probably my two least favourite performances; that isn’t to say the actors didn’t do a good job, but rather that I think the direction they were taken in was not to my taste. Juliet in particular seemed to stay on one note throughout the production despite having some of the most beautiful lines in the play – everything was ‘up’, or ‘goofy’, as my friend described her, without the contrasting moments of quiet or stillness that I think would have brought out more of the romance and tragedy of the words.
On the whole, this is a modern, engaging production from a young company with bundles of talent that really came into its own in the second half; it felt like the company settled into their roles most and everything fell into place once the tragedy ramped up and emotions were running high. The music was at times fun and punchy, at others romantic and mysterious, and was no doubt what sets this adaptation apart from others. Ok, so I felt that some aspects could have been taken further and not everything was perfect for me, but that’s Shakespeare! Almost every production I’ve ever seen has split opinion, and none more so than Romeo and Juliet. Considering this is the first Shakespeare production I’ve seen in a long while, it’s a huge compliment when I say that it’s sparked my joy for the Bard again and I can’t wait to see Twelfth Night later this week.
Summary: A modern Shakespearean adaptation with entrancing music and some top-notch performances, thoroughly enjoyable if a little hit and miss – but the second half doesn’t miss a beat.