Romeo and Juliet
Reviewed – 22nd July 2019
“this talented young company knows when to change gear and transport us to the essence of Shakespeare’s words and emotions”
Brighton, 1964. Whitsun weekend becomes a landmark for an explosion of youth identity during riots between the tribal subcultures of mods and rockers. Setting the mood for Exploding Whale’s new version of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, it encapsulates the pent-up teenage energy and passion which simmer under the surface, ready to boil over in rage or jealousy or love. It may be a timeless tragedy, but this production pinpoints an era of adolescent unrest and disobedience, clearly identifiable in its music and fashion.
As we sit on the beach in deckchairs, the two families appear. Dressed as expected, the use of colour gives them an added stylish unity – rockers in jeans and leathers with a touch of bright red, mods in fashionable black and purple. Detailed lighting and sound (Louis Caro) punctuate scenes and enhance the ambience. The first half lends itself well to its new environment with the initial street fight and the Montagues gate-crashing the Capulet’s party (cue for music) but it takes a while to tune into certain updated roles due to the mixture of accents and unforgiving acoustics, especially in the round. As the narrative is not always clear, we are initially drawn to the more accessible personalities and by the time they are at the Capulet’s, eyes are drawn to dancing partners, Mercutio and the Nurse. However, this is followed by a beautifully powerful balcony scene which seals the play’s integrity and tone. In the second half, with some arresting and intrepid acting, it is the core of Shakespeare’s story which takes over from the 60s landscape until, towards the end, only the music reminds us where we are.
Ben Woodhall’s direction is an original but astute understanding of the script; there are novel takes on the characters, inventive staging and well-shaped dynamic flow. Teddy Morris plays a very real Romeo with a combination of sentiment and honesty which, coupled with Bebe Barry’s shining yet intense innocence as Juliet, gives a fresh and truly moving performance of a classic moment. In supporting roles, Billy Dunmore’s excellent portrayal as Mercutio is immediately charming as the fun best friend but equally bitter as he lies dying; Alex Harvey (Tybalt) brings a raw aggressive presence, Joe Bonfield gives Friar Laurence a contrasting solemnity and in a somewhat fishwife version of the Nurse, Lily Smith creates an interesting and vivid new persona.
With its own youthful energy, Exploding Whale succeeds in presenting an enjoyable and fully-fledged ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Yes, the show does have its foot-tapping moments as promised, but this talented young company knows when to change gear and transport us to the essence of Shakespeare’s words and emotions.
Reviewed by Joanna Hetherington
Photography courtesy Exploding Whale
Romeo and Juliet
Katzpace until 30th July 2019
Previously reviewed at this venue:
The Soul of Wittgenstein
Reviewed – 8th February 2018
“the audience would have been better served with a tighter script”
The Soul of Wittengenstein is a dramatic imagining of the philosopher’s time spent working, incognito, as a porter in a London hospital in WWII. The playwright, Ron Elisha, introduces the character John Smith, an illiterate navvy who is a patient in the hospital, and charts the development of a surprising but profound friendship between the two men. Within this simplest of plot lines, we are also treated to a whistle-stop tour of War and Peace, and some of the salient points of Wittgenstein’s linguistic philosophy.
The play begins with a beautiful and revealing silent movement sequence from Richard Stemp, as Wittgenstein, underscored by a perfectly chosen sonata for cello and piano. The left side of the stage is barely lit, but we are aware of an inhabited hospital bed. This opening, showing the deft directorial hand of Dave Spencer that is present throughout, perfectly sets the tone of the piece. Compliments are due here to Rachael Murray (Sound), Clancy Flynn (Lighting) and Mayou Trikerioti (Set) for terrific production design, in which the sound, the lighting and the set continually worked together in subtle harmony.
Richard Stemp ably embodied the capricious philosopher, described by Bertrand Russell as ‘the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived; passionate, profound, intense, and dominating’. Wittgenstein, as seen here, is not immediately likeable – he is pedantic and emotionally disconnected – and it is testament to Stemp’s skill that we warm to the man as the play unfolds. Ben Woodhall gave a wonderful and utterly believable performance as John Smith. His naive charm and essential humanity were on display throughout and provided the perfect counterpoint to Stemp’s tightly-held genius. He also maintained an excellent Cockney accent of the period. It was just a shame that this was occasionally marred by errors in the writing of the slang. Cockney rhyming slang works as a code because the rhyming part of the phrase remains unspoken, hence ‘plates of meat’ (feet) becomes ‘plates’; ‘apples and pears’ (stairs) becomes ‘apples’ etc. Other than ‘brown bread’ (dead) – a notable exception – this is how it works. John’s relationship to Wittgenstein’s ‘dickie birds’ (words) is central to the play, and it therefore seemed odd that they weren’t the ‘dickies’ they should have been.
The play’s relationship with words, as a whole, presented problems. Wittgenstein’s character, as well as the nature of his philosophical enquiries, is predicated on linguistic play and precision; thus not innately theatrical. For this reason, the play lacked pace; the audience would have been better served with a tighter script and twenty minutes taken off the running time. That being said, the high quality of the acting, directing and production design led to an enjoyable, and occasionally moving, evening at the theatre.
Reviewed by Rebecca Crankshaw
Photography by Lidia Crisafulli
The Soul of Wittgenstein
Omnibus Theatre until 25th February