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FringeReview UK 2018

Low Down

Directed by Erica Whyman. Tom Piper’s rotating cube set on the bare thrust stage’s boards is a study in rust brown. Charles Balfour’s lighting must do the rest, and Sophie Cotton’s score, mainly disco for the Capulet party never crashes us out: Jeremy Dunn’s sound is straightforward too. Till January 19th.


Erica Whyman’s seized on the headlong adolescence of Romeo and Juliet, turning everything on it. Sand-blasting much else away, Whyman takes a mainly young cast (some still at school) who can speak the verse, through fleet storytelling that – allowing a few cut lines – gets in surprising familial details sometimes cut, running in its Barbican transfer a little swifter, at two hours forty with interval.


Every renewal of this text goes for youth: West Side Story, Franco Zeffirelli’s and Baz Luurhman’s films. In Shakespeare’s R&J Joe Calarco transposed everything to the text’s discovery in a frighteningly repressive boys’ school. Here a young diverse cast are nearly all lucid, possess clarity and rationale with the verse which goes at a lick.


In going for a setting as contemporary as these mostly were, Whyman plays up London’s gang violence as an all-too relevant analogue to the West Side’s Jets and Sharks. Encoded in all this are locked-in gang loyalties, break-out braggadocio, the merest look incitement to fatal stabbing.


Whyman’s gender-fluid casting here is mostly inspired, though Charlotte Josephine’s terrific Mercutio breaks the very wall of convention set up: gang warfare doesn’t usually feature knife-fights between sexes. Josephine’s a dramatist who’s written on women boxers, and certainly sustains the part, whilst there’s now a more intriguing kinship with the Prince, her cousin.


The challenge lies always in transposing Verona’s structures, strictures, communications (no mobiles) and now-unbelievable mischances dicing with arcane banishments from local princes.


Whyman’s tried for a non-specific now, stripped back to avoid awkward resonances. So Tom Piper’s rotating cube set on the bare Barbican stage is a study in rust brown. It’s a bit like his versatile, more rice-papery ones for The National’s The Great Wave, as the cube’s hollow though only as a cell, a ladder leads to the top as Juliet’s room for love scenes or later her monument (a bit Anthony and Cleopatra).


So streets and bedrooms blink with the addition of a chromed chair where Juliet sleeps. And there’s a surprising – and singular – breaking out of bright greenery in a simple projection as Friar Laurence tends his herbs; with garden noises. That cell opens more expansively than anything else: a verdant beacon of hope. Charles Balfour’s lighting must do the rest, and Sophie Cotton’s score, mainly disco for the Capulet party where Capulet sensibly early quits the embarrassing-dad act, never crashes us out: Jeremy Dunn’s sound is straightforward too.


Capulet family dynamics are chillingly convincing. Michael Hodgson’s superficially affable Capulet barely shrouds a dangerous even psychotic bully. He threatens Tybalt; and from the start his relations with his wife Mariam Haque – portraying a frightened woman in her late twenties, perhaps a second marriage for Capulet – tell us everything. She’s cowed, flinching and looks the picture of abuse. I’ve not seen a production where the age difference, clearly marked by Shakespeare, so plays out. Haque can barely smile, much less hide her irritation with Ishia Bennison’s Nurse, whose intimacy with Juliet upbraids her to her face. Lady Capulet’s cringing terrified subservience and brief outcries end in a shudderingly tearful dismissal of Juliet.


Karen Fishwick’s spirited, independent Juliet is a joy. Her quicksilver thinking, her vocal clarity and verse-speaking, her ardent refusal to compromise echoes her lover’s but makes all the meditative use of the speeches she can: even if often so swift, she’s often still and the production’s heart beats with her. It’s clear she’s so starved of love that Romeo’s genuine admiration is a kind of shock. For warmth she’s had nothing but Bennison’s Nurse, and when this prattling pragmatist recommends bigamy the shut-off pains and surprises her: Bennison’s wonderfully uncomprehending, and registers her emotional dismissal with sudden muteness. Juliet’s desperation too is wholly earthed. The lovers’ chemistry is more like circuitry.


Bally Gill’s Romeo is again appealing. He speaks and moves well. Agile and febrile, he’s a study in too-quick despairing. Armed with a rashness this Romeo’s like Cassius in a very different way, and seems disposed from the start towards self-harm. The snatch and turnabout of his actions, the way he ill-fatedly recalls the apothecary two fingers pressed against his head, is a study in headlong velocity.


He’s only stilled by Andrew French’s superb Friar Laurence whose speaking – even when full of dispatch and frantic haste – centres everything. Not just Romeo, but Juliet, the nurse, County Paris. French makes of Laurence no botched match-maker but a man of inventive stratagems and infinite compassion driven to palpable extremes when environed by a brace of would-be-suicides. Only at the end does he falter, leaving Juliet to her fate. Here, admittedly, it seems almost out of character.


Raphael Sowole’s Tybalt is a physically menacing street king, indeed up against Mercutio it might seem a foregone conclusion, but Waters’ fight scenes cleverly suggest a ferocious powerhouse lacking that last measure of nimbleness that Mercutio or Romeo might summon. His threat-level’s palpable, making confrontation almost inevitable but for shameful flight.


Paul Dodd’s warm Montague is given rein early on to etch concern and place Romeo in a paternal shadow both anxious and shrewd. It’s Lady Montague though who fetches up at the end too, Sakuntana Ramanee now the surviving parent uttering a numbed reconciliation.


Josh Finan turns Benvolio almost into a major character, more than Horatio to Romeo, clearly in love with him. Finan’s energetic witness is revelatory, his quickness and frantic efforts to check Romeo in full career seem more than ineffectual goodwill, sounding new depths. His vocal power too though Finan’s still young, commands an apt wisdom, someone who knows exactly what could happen.


Poor Afolabi Alli’s Paris is here made to seem even more stuffed with platitudes than usual, his ‘Venus smiles not in a house of tears’ even more rote-learnt than you’d expect. Alli extracts as much sympathy from the poor sap as he can, especially at the end, but plays him for a rich boy unfathomably out of his depth.


There’s terrific point in Beth Cordingly’s ‘you men you beasts’ introducing a chillingly furious prince Escalus. Gender further removes her scornfully above feud. Adamantine in command, stentorian and cut-through as she speaks, hair an ice-blonde signal to warring factions, she’s an enormously impressive figure. Whether parting the initial factions, pronouncing banishment or clearing the final shambles, Cordingly suggests fierce emotions held – unlike nearly everyone else – in check.


Josephine’s relation to her seems that of an aristocrat slumming it. She possesses all the Escalus acuity turned to wit and adrenalin-fuelled boredom. Unlike the placid unthinking Paris, this Mercutio’s not only up for it in partying and japes, but even more sexually alone, or like most Mercutios emotionally unaffected though this one does go to the Capulet party.


There’s often a manically cheerful nihilism in Mercutio, and Josephine’s perpetually-wired presence suggests drugs keeping despair at bay. Though a few lines from Queen Mab are excised, Josephine’s delivery makes wild sense of the wildness and a streetwise scent of danger and fear. Her contempt for Romeo – whose choices are clearly limited by Tybalt’s already delivering a challenge (something we can miss) – hems in Romeo’s choices. Kate Waters makes sense of the fights with Tybalt, though at a traditional level street culture doesn’t permit it (women seen as victims or collateral). Nevertheless Josephine’s ever-bobbing push for a scrap is as thrilling as tragic.


Katy Brittain’s Apothecary is a crumbling starved wreck, and baffled Sister John. Donna Banya’s Gregory is as sparky as Mercutio at the start, where the sexual badinage takes on menace. Butted by the maidenhead joke of Steve Basaula’s fellow Capulet factotum Sampson, Gregory’s ‘they must take it in sense that feel it’ flinches at itself. Yet elsewhere Sampson’s shrunk with fear. Smaller roles are well taken with varying degrees of clarity: the here gormless Balthazar (Tom Padley), Nia Taleghani’s strutting Abraham, John Macauley’s Cousin Capulet and the near-silent Peter, Raif Clarke eloquent in comic bafflement.


This Romeo and Juliet has all the pace and heart any production, modern-dress or period, demands. It can’t quite rationalize sixteenth-century mores with itself, and Josephine’s superb Mercutio might need an even more gender-fluid environment to shine in. But Whyman brilliantly characterises the families, Montague warmth with contrasting Capulet abuse, uniquely making sense of Lady Capulet and Juliet’s dynamic arc. If Romeo’s journey from boy to man is managed by Gill with a winning impetuosity tempered with tragic self-knowledge, Fishwick’s radiant Juliet is the soul that imprints itself on us.