ROMEO AND JULIET on tour from Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory

Paapa Essiedu as Romeo and Daisy Whalley as Juliet © Craig Fuller‘Relevance’ is a word much touted in Shakespeare production. Directors pay obeisance to the concept at their peril. The risk is always that the meaning or potential meanings of a play are somehow twisted beyond endurance until the whole thing snaps and falls apart. Polina Kalinina has set her stall out as a courageous director by, for example, confidently interpolating the, ‘Fear no more the heat o the sun’ speech from Cymbeline and setting the play some time in the sixties. The warring factions are two families, possibly scrap dealers, possibly financial traders in the city – in any case, nouveau riche with form. There is the air of the spiv about both Montague and Capulet, the latter whose parties tend towards the decadent and who has in Lady Capulet, bagged himself a glamorous trophy wife.

Ms Kalinina’s Verona is a children’s playground complete with merry-go-round (the wheel of fortune?) where the weapons used by the factions are whatever comes to hand. Her state is one apparently in collapse, where the prince looks like an ineffectual and bemused accountant whose writ runs no further than his physical reach.

The nurse (Sally Oliver) is a clever creation, in no way the earthy, cunning character of tradition, but a slightly slovenly housekeeper who likes to glam up on her nights off. The edge she brings to the role (with the help of a little judicious cutting) is a welcome change from the comfortable pudding we are often served with. The whole transposition is successful, yet brings its own problems, which leave one a little uneasy.

In Daisy Whalley we have that much longed-for combination of an actress who really does look thirteen-going-on-fourteen at the same time as having the technical ability to do the role justice. She manages the almost impossible trick of growing up in the space of a few days, as if marriage and consummation have released some inner strength. Yet recent events in our own time bring an extra sensitivity to ‘inappropriate sexual activity’, which was not the concern of Shakespeare’s England when girls could marry at twelve – and therein lies my caveat.

Ms Kalinina has partly solved the conundrum by the sensitivity with which she directs the love scenes. Her Romeo (Paapa Essiedu), all swagger and front in his dark glasses whilst mooning over the supposedly incomparable Rosaline, immediately crumbles into emotionally ten-thumbed youth when bitten by the real thing. Thereon in he becomes the slave of uncontrollable emotions in an intractable world. Of course the play is about youth poisoned by the hatreds of their parents’ generation (and all those before) and the idea that for the unworldly-wise a love lost is catastrophe and not mere tragedy. People with blood in their veins will always side with the lovers against authority and tradition when, as here, the roles are played with conviction. So we turn a blind eye to the transgression.

A further novelty and one I confess I still have not made up my mind about is the playing of Mercutio (Oliver Hoare). The noisy braggart is there, but he comes across more of a goad to Romeo rather than a friend, a (possibly drug-fuelled) fool to a prince rather than experienced, witty gallant. It is a well-drawn portrait yet one I felt little sympathy for on his death, being too close in bile to Tybalt to evoke anything more than a feeling of come-uppance.

That old Pandar, Friar Lawrence (Paul Currier), trying to do good, but ultimately meddling outside his remit and comfort zone, so cocking the whole thing up in the process, is played as an avuncular house-master with an interest in botany, who is a little less than completely devastated at his handiwork. Thus the dead hand of the old guard completes its crushing of youthful intemperance and hope.

Kudos to Andrew Hilton for handing the company over to fresh talent in what is a new venture combining the equally successful Tobacco Factory with his own. The production sings with originality and leaves us in patient expectation to see what comes next from all concerned.     ★★★★☆   Graham Wyles     25/02/15  at Bristol


Photo by Craig Fuller

Also part of the 2015 season of Shakespeare and classic drama – The School for Scandal.