Brighton Year-Round 2023
One of the finest OFS productions. Its velocity, tumbling comedy and bawdy, tragedy through lightning brawls, rapier-wit foiled in quicksilver, rapiers foiling wit, headlong teen despair, the exaltation of love flown in lyric sonnets and defying stars: it’s all here, principally because of three outstanding actors. The Romeo of newcomer Isabella Leung, who’s never played Shakespeare in her life, the return of Catie Ridewood as Juliet. And the return from that golden season of 2021: David Samson as Mercutio.
Directed and Produced by Joanna Rosenfeld, Supported by and Costumes provided by Gladrags Community Costume Resource. Set pieces provided by IC Theatre Brighton and Duncan Henderson
Music arranged and performed by Katarina Henderson and Cast
Next and final performance of OFS in 2023, September 3rd .
Romeo Isabella Leung
Juliet Catie Ridewood
Nurse Philippa Hammond
Benvolio Zoe Bouras
Mercutio David Samson
Friar Lawrence Duncan Henderson
Capulet Julien McDowell
Lady Capulet Susan Manning
Paris/Serving Man Deidre Rose
Sampson/Balthazar/ Kate Isitt
Tybalt/Apothecary Alex Louise
Prince Escalus Seerché Deveraux
Abram/Friar/John/ Alexia Broadbent
Montague Sharon Drain
Paris Page/Peter/Gregory/ Moses Azadeh Sedgley
Prologue/Fight Director Charles Church
Musician Katarina Henderson
‘His style is hope, his message is despair’ so wrote Edmund Wilson of Scott Fitzgerald and I sometimes think that’s exactly the tone needed in this play.
So after last week’s The Taming of the Shrew it’s …. Romeo and Juliet. For the second of three productions of its fourth season, One Fell Swoop alights on St Nicholas Rest.
And this is frankly one of the finest OFS productions I’ve seen. Its velocity, tumbling comedy and bawdy, tragedy through lightning brawls, rapier-wit foiled in quicksilver, rapiers foiling wit, headlong teen despair, the exaltation of love flown in lyric sonnets and defying stars: it’s all here, principally because of three actors. They recall that tone captured supremely by Zeferelli: exuberance, exalted lyricism, comedy plunging to tragedy on a knife-edge.
There’s sterling performances, and solid ones, but the three that tell are outstanding. The Romeo of newcomer Isabella Leung, who’s never played Shakespeare in her life, the return of Catie Ridewood as Juliet. And the return from that golden season of 2021: David Samson as Mercutio.
For those who don’t know OFS: Scripts in hand, the actors have from Thursday night to Saturday to scan lines from a Shakespeare they’ve not been told about, do one rehearsal, then… unlocked. It’s a bit like Read Not Dead at the Globe: but edgier. Here fresh invention’s not yet dry, sticks like greasepaint; and Shakespeare’s still scribbling the last act in the wings.
Today’s director Joanna Rosenfeld developed with Conor Baum – who originated OFS in lockdown zoom – the project of performing all Shakespeare’s plays over several seasons. Here’s Season 4 and No. 17, and there’s well maybe another 23 to go if you include the late Double Falsehood (the ‘recovered’ Cardenio) and Edward III which Shakespeare wrote early on with Kyd.
It’s still brave and necessary; the flavour can be of a workshop in the open air attended by people who are by now up for an experience like no other. There’s ways this will morph to keep its freshness and rationale but today it’s working.
Using the St Nicholas space, this production encircles the audience like a doughnut, as Rosenfeld explained. And we swivel round for the final scene. It’s vivid, up-close, well-blocked, the action swirling round, leaping on graves and monuments. The rationale, provincial Verona with accents to match, is one of the very best I’ve seen in recent years. As we’ll see it gets the dynamic, the flavour of motivation, as metropolitan thinking doesn’t.
This starts well as Charles Church’s Prologue slouches and confides his authoritative, deliberately provincial way with the narration, leaning on a tomb: there’s a lot of that. This slight backwater tang suits Verona as a concept, and works for a setting. The principals have burned that tang off in sheer vocal intensity.
Church has sadly nothing else to do but his fight direction is everywhere and it’s superb. Before the climactic duels, there’s real scrapping in the opening servants’ scenes, gaffer accents on those like Kate Isitt’s Sampson, full of sneer and skirling abuse, with Alexia Broadbent’s Abram, turning the “bite your thumb” a thing of scorn; Moses Azadeh Sedgley’s Gregory. Deidre Rose’s first role as Serving Man is chocked with fleer and taunt; and to add fuel to all, last week’s co-director Alex Louise as fiery Tybalt who’d love to strew the ground with dead Montagues in the way others love sex. Louise’s Tybalt is keen to let swords speak, and in her hands, words are merely the cocking mechanism. She returns as a trembling Apothecary.
Indeed Montague turns up, with Sharon Drain instead of being a grave and sober peacemaker, is here a vicious gangland don. There’s nothing of his rearing Romeo, as Capulet avers, as a “well-governed youth”. The peace-making Montague cousin – Benvolio – in the consummate Zoe Bouras’ reading, is full of peacemaking and quick, anxious rushes. The tumbling violence is too much though; not even the elders here want to keep peace. It’s part of the unceasing lightning warfare director Rosenfeld wants to emphasize; it comes to a head in the most unexpected way.
Seerché Deveraux’ Prince Escalus (the police helmet’s a bit daft) is good at grave warning, causing the cessation of violence for the time being. Deveraux gets the essential gravitas here and in the aftermath of the fatal duelling scenes. I miss her at the end.
Philippa Hammond‘s Nurse is well-drawn, uncomprehendingly pragmatic when only empathy will do and prattling with dispatch so the audience is never tired even if Susan Manning’s Lady Capulet is. Manning’s a study in alienation, hardened off by grief, not here an abused wife, but a dried-up woman with shafts of warmth, turning to stern rejection. Here there’s no empathy or pity, but a don’s wife following commands. Hammond’s Nurse meanwhile isn’t averse to flirtation “all a-quiver” as she responds with a sexual frisson to Mercutio’s sallies, however misogynistic they turn out to be.
The great ball is beautifully realised, with masks and music curated and performed by Katarina Rosenfeld, an energised set-piece setting off Julien McDowell’s Capulet as a beneficent don wishing to ride out small scraps and avoid brawls, but who increasingly, with (again) his rustic provincial tang, proving hard and uncomprehending at Juliet’s refusals.
One sees here as McDowell fully absorbs Rosenfeld’s vision, a backwater society, again not metropolitan, where everything’s burned in microcosm. It’s an important foil to gangland London, often reached for in London productions. Verona’s small enough for these grandees to matter. With only one authority above them.
It’s here that Isabella Leung’s phenomenal Romeo first shines. Leung inhabits all the speaking verse with clarity but pitched way beyond that to extremes when it matters and a rubato of softer chidings and repertoire of banter with Mercutio when not suffering. But – and this is crucial – Leung reaches the highest points of lyricism speaking love-sonnets to Ridewood, and at the same time can explode howling in her later “Then I defy you stars” and in a growl of rage both to Tybalt and later, Paris. She outshines in this and her headlong, lyrical disastering all recent Romeos I’ve seen.
Ridewood, not notably girlish or sweetly-innocent to begin with (as some are) is more emotionally late-teen. She’s self-conscious, slightly ambushed rather than totally blindsided, when countering her disposition to be married. “It is an honour… I dreamt not of” she says carefully. Ridewood soon launches on a rapt understanding of passion in a way few I’ve seen match recently. There’s been two great Juliets of recent years (one only just finished), and if you’ve seen either you might feel Ridewood could join them in a third production.
But above all it’s the way Leung and Ridewood interact. The outpouring of their sonnet-courting, which instantly dispenses with any flirting: the raw absolute of their love; the soaring of all those famous lines, including Ridewood’s overheard soliloquy, so pointed in its exaltation. Their ecstatic alternation of loving and parting quivers on the top of a gravestone. It does service for Juliet’s balcony and bed, sashaying dream and reality with lark and nightingale, Leung stretched between a raised box and the lower lip of the gravestone, refusing to take leave. You can’t fake such intensity and this duet is the finest I’ve seen at OFS.
The ball’s framed by the brilliance of Samson’s Mercutio scenes before and after. Samson’s Mercutio is full of vaulting unambition, exuberant with truculence. His vocal production is absolute, clarion-voiced, funny with those masks and with the right crescendo of delivery, railing at Romeo and later, Tybalt. He speaks verse and beat with laughter rippling it. There’s been a disappointing run of Mercutios in mainstream Romeo and Juliets recently, often too slow, and if paced at all lacking his sheer manic self-destructiveness. Samson doesn’t quite wish to suggest a bipolar Mercutio, more the blazing noon that’s over before one.
Samson by contrast attacks Mercutio’s wit and light sneer, the ferocious, almost death-wishing voice-fleer at Alex Louise’s Tybalt. Their passados of verse give way to athletic knife-fights and gangland brawls – a given of all R&Js recently. Here though both throw off an energy neither Bouras’ Benvolio or Leung’s Romeo can dent. His death-scene is fully realised, wit and bitterness writing his epitaph in his own blood.
Duncan Henderson’s Friar Lawrence eschews either the bumbling meddling friar, or the quick-witted one so like Duke Vincentio in Measure for Measure, nearly getting it right. Entering with his herb basket he keeps the even tenor of that, refusing tricks or variance, and remains detached: even, infuriatingly superior in his homily to the devastated Capulet family at Juliet’s supposed death. It explains wanting to make himself scarce when Juliet wakes to disaster.
Incidentally, this is where Rose’s Paris scores beautifully. An unsympathetic character recently, blind to his advances so blatantly unwanted by Juliet (those are abridged here but apparent) this Paris explodes in genuine grief along with the Capulets. Rose’s Romeo-challenging Paris is simply uncomprehending but again Church’s fight-direction provides a knife-fight-scene remarkable for its desperation.
Again too the fifteen-year-old Sedgley’s stepped up in a variety of small roles (Paris’ Page, Nurse’s put-upon servant Peter, as well as Montague servant Gregory and a citizen) and provides variety with a surprising end riven with pathos. Alexia Broadbent, after street-fighting Abram makes an impression as Friar John out of their depth in the letter-fracas, is finally a terrified Watch.
This is a production when the repeated mantra of “stars” between the lovers morphs in an eclipse of fortune and literally star-crossing becomes a vocal star-stabbing. Leung’s “Then I defy you stars” as suggested is an animal howl like I’ve never seen, and truer than any Romeo in this. Leung’s death-throes too are shiveringly visceral. Ridewood matches her in her bewildering terror and iron resolve. Unless Escalus is due to appear, here’s the real end of this play.
There’s an ingenious epilogue. Sharon Drain’s far more brutish-than-normal Montague along with McDowell’s Capulet arrive then dispatch opposing servants/friends (Paris’ Page and Benvolio) instead of reconciling; and Prince Escalus is nowhere to be seen.
It’s a view, but Shakespeare’s is still better – not through over-fidelity to the script, which serves him badly (witness his own alterations to the Hamlet and Lear quartos and Folio); but because of the way this tragedy’s shaped: the arc of its headlong velocity and release above all. The lovers’ tragedy must conquer all too, including realism. You can abridge and end with the lovers dead, as several now do. But to land as tragedy, the death here must tell. It must mean something.
The unceasing violence of gangland can serve as backdrop but it can’t rewrite catharsis. It wrong-foots the audience; as it ends without closure and people clapped raggedly for a while before catching themselves with the enormous power of the leads.
However, Rosenfeld didn’t let her decision clutter the integrity of the lovers’ end. Happily Leung and Ridewood burn through memory so much, that footnotes clear themselves away as actors rise. Rosenfeld must feel as exalted as the company to have drawn together such players and let them blaze.