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FringeReview UK 2021

Low Down

Directed by Ola Ince (Assistant Director Rachel Lemon), Jacob Hughes creates a red/black/white array of costumery and stage props. Composer Max Perryment’s brassy score is directed by Trombone Richard Henry with trumpeters Miguel Gorodi and Victoria Rule, Tomoya Forster Saxophone, Celia Hough Percussion). RC Annie Ltd are Fight Directors, Choreographer Aline David, Sydney Florence supervises the fantastical costumes made by a team of ten. Jackie Orton co-ordinates the wardrobe’s multiple sourcing and Tess Dignan Head of Voice. Till October 17th.

Streamed live again TBA



So it’s like Brecht’s turned educationalist and taken over message-boards. No complaints there in this hurtling one-hour-45 Globe production of Romeo and Juliet directed by Ola Ince. Assistant Director in the Donmar/Clean Break Shakespeare trilogy 2013-17, she’s brought the same high-impact re-think here.

There’s also great clarity. All eleven actors are not only vocally crisp if not buffeted by a trombone, they’re also distinct in character. There’s much editing but bar a couple of moments the characterisation blazes through. It’s a huge tribute to cast and director that storytelling’s so lucid despite edits and we know who everyone is. Helps they all declare this at the start. There’s several excellent and one towering performance. No chance of anyone dozing here. It’s not only woke, which gets hurled at it, this production’s awake and wired.

And those now-famous screen-projected pronouncements in fuschia/black – OK gammon-pink – really do address so many issues from teenage depression (20%), suicide (biggest killer under 34), youth clubs in London halved since 2011, suicide after bereavement, depression after emotional neglect (over the Capulets, nice) patriarchy suppressing emotional expression of boys (excellent), several on poverty, one about the rational brain not being formed till 25. That’s calculated to – I’ll leave it to a young otherwise enthused audience member in front of me: ‘Oh f off!’ There’s a few points in this edgily brilliant production when it goes all nervous social worker. One worse to come. And they could fade messages after a minute, it distracts. Techno-Brecht wouldn’t have it.

We’ve laid our scene though in a shabby Verona paradoxically full of rich kids, to which some of the above doesn’t apply. Emphatically much does though. It’s a visceral escorché world where copper panels in the gallery echo streaked, faded woodwork upstage and doors, which evokes ancient Verona too. It’s a city gone fire-sale.

Designer Jacob Hughes creates a red/black/white array of costumery – memorable Verona Carnival masks –  and stage props. A world of black BX bikes, sudden rave luxuries, a goofy round bed in white and red popping out every time Juliet’s alone, with a cupboard full of goodies; a defenestrated mobile greenhouse doing service for Friar Laurence’s herbarium and eventually a wreath-festooned Capulet tomb.

Those BX bikes circle  – adrenalin-shots of braggadocio, envenoming Verona. That trusty neon slung just below the gallery signposts patriarchy and poverty; which doesn’t apply to the two houses alike in dignity nor their followers. Bernstein and Sondheim got that heartbreakingly right: it’s another story.

With RC Annie Ltd fight directors we get classic, brief knife-fights: not glamorised, shockingly swift. Choreographer Aline David surrounds these circles of hell with an impending velocity and you’re glued to what next.

Composer Max Perryment’s brassy score – directed by trombonist Richard Henry, with trumpeters Miguel Gorodi and Victoria Rule, Tomoya Forster Saxophone, Celia Hough Percussion – literally blasts the faces off the best Capulet party I’ve been to, or hope to be thrown out of.

If there’s a harrumph left, it’s trumpeted out here in a brass funkfest exciting even by Globe brass standards. There’s Arctic Monkeys, the Streets (I think) some of Perryment’s own work including an ironically tinged but dark funeral dirge, and a wonderful opening duet between Romeo and Juliet to fall in love with if you’re audience, but not if you’re R&J.

That’s because instead of freezing at that point with Alfred Enoch’s Romeo and Rebekah Murrell’s Juliet rapt in those thrilling intro sonnets (pace Elizabeth Bennett, love can’t be killed off with a good one) we get singing blazed out both publicly and yet somehow secretly. It thrills us, but there’s no connection. For Romeo Juliet is a Rosaline who will, and for Juliet, Romeo’s more real in contemplation, cut out in stars for a poster. It’s the point where we lose R&J. Not Romeo, nor Juliet, and one scene’s to come. But.

Enoch’s attractive and bounces off Zoe West’s Benvolio and Adam Gillen’s Mercutio with all the toxic aplomb you could wish. He’s warm with Murrell but we see him at more emotional stretch with Sargon Yelda’s excellent, avuncular Friar Laurence, who looks like he might front a TV gardening programme, full of alert dispatch, tottering through pot-plants.

Enoch’s extremes are convincingly edgy, answer those neons to the pink letter, and this is one of those moments where Shakespeare’s been ahead of us with the Friar Laurence Youth Counselling Service for 400 years: Yelda emphatically yet stylishly spells them out, as well as the latest sign above, as do all the cast. So do we need that ’25 years’ bit?

Romeo might have better relations with Clara Indrani’s Montague than Juliet with the Capulets, but we see little as Indrani turns after one scene into Friar John. So neglect of this ‘well-governed youth’ is entirely possible.

Murrell is a delight. She and Enoch do manage some connection in the dawn-after scene, despite pratfalls with ladders generally and ironic etches. Murrell lets her own Juliet revel in soliloquies with no need to respond with arch privilege or defensive irony, a Juliet rapt with presence but seriously damaged as we’ll see. This comes out when she explodes confronting Friar Laurence; like Enoch, with utter conviction.

Seen first kickboxing some (now nameless) servant this Juliet’s ripe for narcissism: spoiled and indulged at one level, neglected and bullied emotionally. Kicking inferiors aside, Murrell proves she’s miraculously survived most of that, part in thanks to Sirine Saba’s Nurse who works her and Lady Capulet like a clever manipulative servant in a Greek comedy. There’s little of the tedious and more brisk about Saba. She speaks her deadly last lines to Juliet with a sided prepared wit; her grief at discovery of Juliet’s body is howlingly convulsive, as if she were the real mother. Which here she is.

Beth Cordingly plays Lady Capulet as one long inured to her husband, not cowering, but frozen. As if marrying at Juliet’s age a man she probably had no choice over, and losing every other child has visibly covered her in an icy sheen. Her brittle dismissal of her daughter really is chilling.

Silas Carson’s Capulet is worse. Seemingly urbane, handsome, he’s in truth a raging sociopath who when he gets a whim pursues it. We don’t really see except in mime his chiding of Paris, but his sudden roars over Juliet and Nurse – his wife simply keeps mum – are whipcrack. His fingers flinch over Juliet, they really do as he says, itch.

For the Montagues, West’s Benvolio is a softening foil to glints elsewhere, we believe her attempts at peace-making. There’s no time for that frisson where you feel Benvolio might be in love with Romeo.

Gillen’s Mercutio is outstanding. Echoing some of the skirling wildness he displayed in Amadeus Gillen accesses that underlying desperation the late John McEnery so brilliantly undercut his Queen Mab speech in. Here there’s malignant sadness gone wild. Gillen’s own energy hurtles Mercutio to the abyss; the death-seeking missile of his words unerring, poisoned with the clan chalice of honour which almost dismisses Romeo’s death from a challenge of Tybalt’s as simple process. Mercutio’s hypermanic wit staves off yet chases oblivion.

Will Egerton’s Tybalt is a simpler man poisoned too by honour, needling him to seek out quarrels to prove himself a killer king. Each time he walks on stage you see him coil up, ready to strike. Egerton’s elegance is keenly balanced by an impacted anger as toxic as Mercutio’s grief. They’re opposites attracted – as this production proves – by the same death-magnet, the same cult.

Dwane Walcott’s sterling Prince doesn’t get much of a work-out after the opening scene, which is a pity, since he carries authority. The postlude to Tybalt’s death is cut, and as he’s by now a prone Paris poor Walcott doesn’t speak much of the sawn-off epilogue when he arises; we lack closure for anyone, which this production points up, though removes meaning.

Walcott’s Paris is a study in malign blandness: a dull-witted walking privilege carrying iron without knowing how to use it, who’ll marry a girl her father had that week called a child – against her will. ‘A proper man’ he’s a piece of – patriarchy.

That gun has consequences. Despite a blade lying with an open invite on the floor and Juliet’s unmodified language ‘come trusty blade’ there’s a titter as Murrell picks up the gun instead and plays with ways to blow her head off, talking rust. Not good to have a young audience giggle.

There’s textual hiccups. Nervously Juliet’s made not 14 but 16 ‘at Lammas-Tide’ repeatedly (so 15 at the mo…), but we’ve still the Nurse with ‘by my maidenhead at twelve year old’ and more pointedly ‘Lady Capulet’s ‘married much upon your age…’ adding those ‘younger than you… happily wed’ which means even if not ‘mothers made’ (I think I heard that but let that go) means Verona and Lady C are fine with under-16 marriage after all. Editor?

Not only do this and guns going off get fed straight into exams and marked down, but is this production trying to save some schoolchildren from knowing Shakespeare portrays what many already have first-hand experience of, as well as much worse? Or worried the brilliantly alert Secretary of State for Education might ban its streaming? No Fear Shakespeare? Better we look steadily at a patriarchy that in Capulet enforces monstrous unions; and in Paris a rich man who thinks he owns a 14-year-old.

Nevertheless, a fleet, upending, wholly relevant take on the Verona-ready toxicity feeding male violence and young depression, various damages and funding cuts rightly flagged. Many of us might add The Government to that list, despite the ‘if you have been affected’ projected last. Yes actually. Leading a poetry/mental health charity I’ve seen from 2010 published poets we’d mentored soon throw themselves off Beachy Head as new cuts loosened supervision and despair set in; and it’s accelerated. As Laertes said ‘The king – the king’s to blame.’ So yes it’s right to flag this and snatch Shakespeare in its service.

The biggest saver of all though is love, connection, being recognized uniquely. The loss of that’s devastating and you never feel in this production Enoch and Murrell can wring us to why they feel no way out. Triggers yes, but Shakespeare does it even better, teaching us to feel the consequences of suicide far more. We should be streaming, not giggling. Hamlet mightn’t survive without the prince, though it seems much of R&J without the lovers can. There’s so much to admire and inspire here in this exhilarating production, despite caveats. Just 15 minutes more of interaction would give this couple time to break our hearts. And maybe save a few of us.