‘I tried to focus on the bits I felt I hadn’t seen in productions before – the play’s examination of dreams, of time, of coincidence and chance’ says Robert Icke, the director of Headlong Theatre’s new production of Shakespeare’s famous but ‘not well-known’ Romeo and Juliet. Icke whisks the audience into the glass and steel surroundings of Helen Goddard’s elegant interpretation of modern-day Verona. Goddard’s set transforms effortlessly from the bedroom of a vulnerable teenager to an Italian boulevard, to the booming venue of a party with the Capulets. It manages to be minimalist yet decadent, and a constant reminder of the sense of impending doom is provided by the Saw-esque intermittent projection of a digital clock onto the large gauze at the centre of the action, though this is executed in a similarly sophisticated fashion as the rest of the set.
In this brushed aluminium world, Danny Kirrain’s overly bumbling Benvolio seems a little out of place to begin with. His rapport with lovesick cousin Romeo appears at first a little unnatural. For a while they seem to arbitrarily bounce across the stage, talking incomprehensibly ‘at’ each other, though the presence of Tom Motherside’s eccentric Mercutio (bottle of whisky in hand) makes this slightly awkward duet into a more believable comic trio. Motherside successfully channels his boundless energy into an outstanding performance. The road to his eventual death is a turbulent but hugely engaging affair; an eclectic mix of Motherside’s hilarious audacity alongside the brutality of Okezie Morro’s Tybalt, who (naturally) becomes more brutal still as Motherside drizzles him with ice cream syrup and sprinkles. Small touches like this generate a great deal of laughter without detracting from the otherwise tense atmosphere.
Away from the streets of Verona, Icke’s production is blessed with a strong Capulet household. Catrin Stewart’s Juliet blends vulnerability with strong will. Keith Bartlett demonstrates a great versatility as Capulet, teasing out the comedy as a merry father figure but never straying from the gently aggressive undertone which reveals itself towards the end of the play. Caroline Faber (Lady Capulet) makes a convincing socialite, though it is a shame less is revealed about this interesting character as devastation is wreaked upon the family. Great attention has however been paid to the Nurse, played to perfection by Brigid Zengeni who endows the character with a contagious sense of humour, and she enjoys a plausible sisterly relationship with Juliet. One can sense the anticipation of the audience as Zengeni enters the stage. Indeed, whilst her exploitation of Shakespeare’s humour is extremely successful, her performance during Juliet’s feigned death was exceptionally harrowing.
Whilst this could have been just another modern interpretation, the excellent cast engage very successfully with the finer details of the play, and Icke has exploited its potential visual and comic appeal to full effect.
Romeo and Juliet was shown at the Nuffield Theatre from February 2nd to 18th. It is still touring in Guildford, Salisbury, Cambridge and other venues across the country.