Following on from one of Shakespeare's most famous tragedies, Macbeth, the RSC have staged the next in their current season, Shakespeare's most famous tragedy/play in general, the one that everyone knows (even if it's just through Leo DiCaprio and Claire Danes' teenage performances): Romeo & Juliet. Erica Whyman has brilliantly directed a play burdened by its own legacy, and I found myself actually enjoying most of the performance, despite my general antipathy towards the play, and the apathy I had towards the marketing campaign. (That's not necessarily an insult – it's not that I hated their marketing, but rather that it felt uninspiring and uninspired... but that's another story entirely.) This is a production that made me smile, and that's not always a given with Shakespeare.
Karen Fishwick is the most compelling Juliet, full of strength and a genuinely commanding presence, asserting not only her character's independent will but also the value of a character like Juliet even now, centuries later, at a time where debates about female agency are taking centre stage more and more. On the other hand, Bally Gill’s Romeo, while convincing in his shared scenes with Juliet, doesn’t always hit the mark elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Mariam Haque played a sympathetic and on-edge Lady Capulet, a trauma survivor who struggles to stand up for herself and her daughter, and Sakuntala Ramanee's turn as an imposing Lady Montague was characterised by her taking on the lines and role traditionally given to Lord Montague, the latter eventually fading into nothingness.
But the real stand-out performances come from another trio: Ishia Bennison’s hilarious and endearing Nurse, Beth Cordingly’s surprisingly multi-dimensional and emotive Prince Escalus, and Raif Clarke’s funny, charming, loveable Peter, the ultimate protagonist of this production.
The production has a lot to say about queering Shakespeare. Josh Finan’s Benvolio is a great performance, devoted romantically to Romeo, but unfortunately his gravitas and significance feels thrown away in the second half. The queering of this character spoke to me, obviously (let's be honest – what self-respecting gay doesn't have a story of helpless devotion and unrequited love for a straight friend?) but I felt that, logically, they should have replaced Balthasar with Benvolio in those later scenes to really take that portrayal all the way home, and to allow Benvolio a more personally and dramatically rewarding arc.
Unfortunately, I was disappointed with Charlotte Josephine’s Mercutio; queering the role was a great choice and I was excited to see the result, and indeed the gender-swap worked powerfully. Yet I felt this was overshadowed by a confused portrayal, overly frantic and perhaps offensively manic, with no apparent psychological depth or impetus; though I am sure it was not Josephine or Whyman's intention, it felt like a parody of manic depression played out on the stage. I came away let down by the reading of the character, but still excited to see Josephine, a clear talent, grapple with other Shakespearean roles in the future. I hope she'll be back at the RSC soon, and preferably as Hamlet.
On the whole, the set is beautifully designed by Tom Piper, with lighting by Charles Balfour, and excellent compositions from Sophie Cotton; each of these strengths for the production is attentively sown together with Ayse Tashkiran’s captivating movement direction. The greatest weakness for the production seems to be its slightly over-long running time: it's a deeply held belief that "two hours' traffic" means what it says. Ultimately this was a production characterised by tenderness from its creative team, love pouring out of almost every creative decision; noticeably driven by its empowering female presence, this is a vibrant and energetic production that screams loudly that there is a lot of beauty in life – even if sometimes the beauty is lost a little in the chaos.