Romeo and Juliet, Courtyard, Stratford-upon-Avon

Smoke, fire and street fights

Michael Coveney
Wednesday 24 March 2010 01:00

Romeo wanders on wearing a parka, jeans and earphones, snapping the girls in the audience, as if a tourist in his own story. Rupert Goold's exciting, headlong production then skips the first 40 lines (the prologue is spoken as a voiceover) and erupts in smoke, fire and a thrilling street fight.

It's not unusual these days to see mixed-up period Shakespeare – ruffs and hoodies, hose and bovver boots – but Goold makes the overlap especially effective as his young lovers start outside their own history and are fully merged in death, leaving family and friends in a modern-dress void.

Perhaps Sam Troughton, a hooker or brawny stand-off on the rugby field, and quirky Mariah Gale (David Tennant's Ophelia), are odd casting. But they are fresh and sexy, struck by a thunderbolt of love, mediated by the exceptional, wheedling Friar Laurence of Forbes Masson.

Gale is brilliant at the adolescent sulkiness of Juliet, corseted into silken finery for her wedding eve, where the ghost of her cousin Tybalt (Joseph Arkley) lays her down and Paris (a stolid James Howard) is undone by her serene beauty in death. Troughton plays with open-eyed wonder at his good fortune. He speaks the verse roughly but intelligently. It is rare to feel the lovers really have fulfilled their destiny, but the world might not have been good enough to contain these two. They are united ecstatically deep into the play's third act, where the interval falls after almost two hours.

Tom Scutt's design is one of the best, using a central platform as domestic table and tomb; hanging braziers for the golden Capulet ball (the masked cast clapping and stomping to Adam Cork's Moroccan-flavoured music); and a stairway up to the balcony and down to the mausoleum, cunningly lit by Howard Harrison.

The fights, by Terry King, are tremendous and the dangerous street-fighting mood is personified in Jonjo O'Neill's extraordinary blond Mercutio, a man brimming with so many insults and words that he must enact them and so eaten with warped sexual fantasy that he climbs inside an imaginary womb and drowns. He daubs his nose red in his own blood, exiting on a clownish grin. We really miss him.

His bullying of Noma Dumezweni's pipe-smoking Nurse is horrid but it is topped by Richard Katz's shocking outburst against his daughter, Juliet, made worse by a callous under-cutting delivery which alternates with fruit-spitting, face-slapping rage.

The last words are now spoken by Balthasar, whom Gruffudd Glyn transforms into a chillingly impassive observer with a fine falsetto singing voice. Juliet stabs herself with some plausibly nightmarish screaming, which melds into the police sirens outside, and the sorry spectacle is jotted down in a notebook by a plain clothes constable. An outstanding evening.

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