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FringeReview UK 2023

Romeo and Juliet

Almeida Theatre

Genre: Classical and Shakespeare, Comedic, Drama, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre, Tragedy

Venue: Almeida Theatre


Low Down

It’s not just that Isis Hainsworth’s Juliet is the sun here, though her outstanding performance is the heart of this Romeo and Juliet. This is one of the most thrilling, sometimes harrowing Romeo and Juliets I’ve seen. Fittingly a world where sun and extinction flash and vanish, it’s the Shakespeare production of the summer.

Director/ Choreographer Rebecca Frecknall, Set Designer Chloe Lamford, Costume Designer Debbie Duru, Lighting Designer Lee Curran, Sound Designer Gareth Fry, Fight Director Jonathan Holby.

Casting Director Julia Horan CDG, Prop Supervisor Lily Mollgaard, Costume Supervisor Alexandra Kharibian, Assistant Director Justina Kehinde, Associate Costume Supervisor Claire Nicolas

Till July 29th


It’s not just that Isis Hainsworth’s Juliet is the sun here, though her outstanding performance is the heart of this Romeo and Juliet. Few productions dazzle with the light and headlong disaster as Rebecca Frecknall’s. Nor actually turn to Prokofiev’s ballet of Shakespeare’s early tragedy, or underscore the production with a ballet – West Side Story’s not far away either, in Gareth Fry’s processing parts of the Prokofiev score. But Frecknall as director and in truth choreographer turns the two-hour-five-traffic into a fleet airborne one, anchored with a blaze of candles.

At the end it looks almost like the Wanamaker, in Lee Curran’s stunning display. But the feel’s different. For one thing, despite the brevity – there’s no interval – there’s choreographed moments where no words are spoken. The play’s comic and tragic extremes play out on – literally – a knife edge either way. It’s both hilarious and viscerally shocking. The opening chorus too is literally written on a wall as the cast assemble below it, inexorable, implacable and a prophesy of many vocal silences to come.

There’s been several productions highlighting knife-fights, but none where the ritual element is so integrated – here by fight director Jonathan Holby. Thus in Chloe Lamford’s flayed-back set, virtually nothing is required but actors to collapse frozen in death or ritual inaction, controlled by the wall-script; or to remain impassive, as Juliet does, hunched at the front of the stage, as fated mistakes hum about her. At one point Benvolio perches on one of the two benches used as biers. In Debbie Duru’s dark contemporary garb, nothing distracts: faces and lighting are all the colour needed.

Frecknall’s known for rethinking, but here she reveals Shakespeare’s structure too. For instance the symmetrical “banished” scenes play simultaneously, show their mirror scenes by lightning, highlight the notion of banishment. There’s mirroring too in Juliet on the Almeida gallery echoed by Romeo’s clambering up the backstage wall, lending an imaged equality

Clearly much has been cut but Frecknall’s production and her two main protagonists discover shuddering depths and consequences. Apart from the headlong flight there’s the ferocious speed and often rethinking of language, deliciously comic when cast-members anticipate or contradict. It doesn’t always land but when it does it’s thrilling and instrumentalises the way people hear each other – particularly in street scenes and in explosive group encounters.

In Romeo (Toheeb Jimoh) and especially Juliet (Hainsworth) Frecknall asks fundamental questions of how we understand these teenagers, how others see them, how they fathom each other. Jimoh’s warmth and sincerity, his natural speaking has a playfulness to it that makes you see how Juliet, if she wasn’t already struck dumb by looking, might fall for his words. Even making to leave sleeping Juliet, he manages a winning comedy, starkly contradicting his last actions.

Hainsworth is a notch beyond even Jimoh. Brattishly comic on occasion, she’s given to explosive screams, (something inherited we’ll see) and latterly a desolate, settled resolve – we forego nearly everything about Juliet from her drinking the phial to the tomb-scene, where again Frecknall surprises, with a touch of Ambrose Thomas’ opera.

Hainsworth’s also palpable in her tenderness; as in her waking to Romeo, a way of speaking low that carries. Hainsworth’s sheer velocity elsewhere, her switchbacks and above all clarity show this is a Juliet who outburns the lamps of jocund day.

Friar Lawrence (Paul Higgins) is superb: He’s neither bumbling or frantically overactive, but seems almost like a priest in a war-zone. His words, fleet with subtext as he changes pitch from amazement at Romeo’s new love to his swift realisation of how this might bring an end to violence, suggests we could never see him as fearful for himself. Shorn here of later cowardice, he’s an ideal mix of gravitas and decision.

Mercutio (Jack Riddiford) is often superb in his strut when dealing with Romeo, Benvolio and particularly Tybalt. He’s cool, drawling, gesturally vivid and memorably “saucy”. But curiously he’s either too slow or too rushed in his Queen Mab speech, never penetrates the almost bi-polar career hurtling Mercutio to death before the lovers. If there’s comedic male bonding with Romeo, Riddiford’s slither down consciously plays with but eschews the homoerotic. Elsewhere though there’s not enough life in Romeo’s friends. By contrast death scenes are drawn out.

Benvolio (Miles Barrow) is full of care and pacific overtures; there’s no homoerotic subtext here either. This is a world of Jets and Sharks (as often recently) but a homage to Jerome Robbins is as present as a recent emphasis on knife-fights. The murder of two students on the news as this production opens underscores the appalling truth it brings to stabbing.

Tybalt (Jyuddah Jaymes) pulses danger and growls words with such alacrity that you fear Capulet (Jamie Ballard) is almost too benign to stop Tybalt’s challenge to Romeo at the Ball. Indeed Ballard holds Capulet in affable reserve. There’s such a shock of his rage it catches the tnder, helpless Lady Capulet (Amanda Bright) in a shudder. It’s clear that – unlike some recent Capulets – this isn’t a marriage inured to abuse. Ballard plausibly suggests how Hainsworth inherits Capulet’s sudden rages, more extreme for being untempered with maturity.

Inevitably we lose amplitude, especially at the end. Nurse (Jo McInnes) finds unusual dignity. All the early prattle’s cut. Her final advice – shorn of “Romeo’s but a dish-clout to him” – seems common-sense till that blink of exhorting bigamy kicks in.

Montague (Gideon Turner) is both youthful and active but vanishes early. Balthazar (Raphael Akuwudike) is confined to an eloquent baffled loyalty at the end. The Prince (Kieron Jecchinis) is lithe and commanding rather than fearsome, but can chill action.

His kinsman Paris (James Cooney) seen only in his relationship to Capulet and Juliet is plausibly venal and cold. “Do you marry him” one wants to transpose Lysander’s words to Egeus from the Dream (it was the next play, curiously), since this Paris esteems Capulet. Cooney’s cool claim to owning Juliet’s face has you wish he indeed faces a rapier.

There’s comic confusion from Servant and hapless Gregory (Luke Cinque-White, also Dance Captain), and cringing, darker pathos from the Apothecary and the more quarrelsome Sampson (Daniel Phung, also Fight Captain)

Frecknall though eschews the tragedy, venality or confusion of secondary characters, and gives us the stark death of the lovers unadorned, with no consolatory speeches, gestures or societal pitch at reconciliation.

What we’re left with are dozens of torches as Juliet, repeatedly tries to end her life. It’s almost unwatchable. “She doth teach the torches to burn bright!” Romeo once said, and Hainsworth proves, fulfilling the promise of her outstandingly grieving Bridge Hermia in 2019.  We’re haunted by the play on Juliet’s prayer that on Romeo’s death the fates should “cut his face out in little stars”, and it literally happens with these candles, Juliet looking one last time at their light, and Romeo’s face.

This is one of the most thrilling, sometimes harrowing Romeo and Juliets I’ve seen. Fittingly a world where sun and extinction flash and vanish, it’s the Shakespeare production of the summer.