Review: Romeo and Juliet at the RSC | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

Review: Romeo and Juliet at the RSC

Culture writer Holly Reaney reviews a modern and vivacious production of Romeo and Juliet at the RSC

Romeo and Juliet is synonymous with three things: Shakespeare, Baz Luhrmann, and Leonardo DiCaprio. For many, Luhrmann has created the definitive adaptation of the play, and that is hard to top. However, it is this which makes Whyman’s latest production for the RSC all the more powerful. Whyman has created a Romeo and Juliet for the youth of the 21st century. A world of knife crime, murder, and teenage agency stands a mirror to our own. In light of the recent spike of London knife crime, Whyman’s production feels hauntingly realistic. As strange as it seems, this story could be in the paper.

The diverse casting, reflecting Britain’s wide range of accents and ethnicities, enabled Whyman to create a play where every member of the audience could recognise themselves upon the stage. Readdressing the gender balance, the Prince Escalus retains the title but is performed by Beth Cordingly, and the balance between Lord and Lady Montague turns her into the violent force countered by his more peaceful resistance. The most significant gender shift, however, is Mercutio. Played by Charlotte Josephine, Mercutio becomes a character who defies gender. Josephine does not play a female Mercutio, but nor does she play a male Mercutio. Instead, she plays Mercutio as a shape-shifter who transcends the gender boundaries, serving to hold a mirror to the masculine violence which characterises the play.

'Whyman has created a Romeo and Juliet for the youth of the 21st century... hauntingly realistic. As strange as it seems, this story could be in the paper.

Josephine’s voice perfectly matched the quick, raw, witty lyricism of Shakespeare. Her Cockney accent paired with her style and rhythm felt a lot like the spoken word poetry of Kate Tempest. This was particularly prominent throughout the infamous Queen Mab speech, which was impassioned and energetically captivating. Together with Benvolio and Romeo, the three characters create a solid unit, a group who could easily be seen on a university campus. Completely believable, this production prioritises friendship, and the theme runs throughout the piece as strongly as the romantic plot-line. The additional exploration of Benvolio’s character as being infatuated with Romeo is also a well-executed complexity to the piece, particularly since this dimension is added through a subtle series of glances, expressions, and one misplaced kiss.

The subtlety and intricacies of acting in this performance are superb across the board. Bally Gill and Karen Fishwick take on the eponymous leads with a fervour and life which illuminated the performance. Fishwick’s Juliet is a believable teenager. She is the agent of her own destiny, not a victim as some productions attempt to portray her, and with this she is a solid and likeable character. She is a young girl, who thinks she knows best and acts on her own impulses with impatience, making the events which lead to her death all the more tragic. She is slowly backed into a corner, with little choice in the way the events unfold, particularly emphasised by the violence of her father and the strained distance of her mother. Fishwick plays Juliet as she deserves to be played. 

The subtlety and intricacies of acting in this performance are superb across the board. Bally Gill and Karen Fishwick take on the eponymous leads with a fervour and life which illuminated the performance

Ishia Bennison takes the role of the Nurse and excels. Witty and lighthearted, she provides a refreshing contrast to the heavier themes of the play. However, again, Bennison explores the nuance of her characters with a small reference to her own, deceased, daughter and her husband. This theme of lost motherhood is also foreground in this production through Lady Capulet. An overlooked character in many productions, Mariam Haque’s Lady Capulet has a complexity beyond the role of Juliet’s mother. Haque’s conscientious acting, a series of subtle expressions and pained glances tells the tale of a struggling mother.

The subtle tension between Nurse and Lady Capulet explores the complexities of motherhood; the warm, loving connection between Juliet and the Nurse who raised her stands in stark contrast to the cold, formal, detached relationship of her own mother. Though this dynamic is not unusual for a production of the play, the yearning of Lady Capulet to have that close and intimate relationship with her daughter, and slowly realising how impossible it is to achieve, stands out. Presented through pained expressions, an awkward loitering presence, Lady Capulet does not command the room but instead cowers in the shadow of Juliet and her nurse. This is most painfully presented as each woman attends the body of Juliet, the quiet grief of Lady Capulet who almost cannot comprehend the news and the tending, rushing, nurturing of Juliet’s body by the Nurse. It is a beautifully sensitive addition to the play and it is such nuances which make this production stand out.

A modern, vivacious Romeo and Juliet...for a new generation

Tom Piper’s stripped back stage brought the strength of the actor's performances to the foreground. Rejecting the traditional ornate architecture and elevated balcony, every moment on the stage was orientated around an oppressive cuboid. This cuboid was the Friar Lawrence’s cell, the balcony, and the crypt. Stripping the stage back to focus on the characters emphasises the organicity and universality perhaps not of the story but of the people. There was also a strong resonance to the ease at which characters drew blades, with normalised violence part of a world which does not feel too far from our own.

Despite the prologue feeling less assured, with many characters’ voices all building upon each other in order to create a wall of ‘two houses both alike in dignity’, the overall performance was invigorating. Whyman’s production breathed new life into the well-known story to create a modern, vivacious Romeo and Juliet which revelled in its contemporary familiarity. From overt sexual humor which blurred the boundaries of lust and love, to the heavy beats of the soundtrack which made the masquerade ball feel like a night at Snobs, this was a Romeo and Juliet for the new generation.

Romeo and Juliet plays at the RSC until September 21st, and later plays at the Barbican Centre in London. More information can be found here.



Published

8th May 2018 at 9:00 am



Images from

Topher McGrillis



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