“The whole cast is excellent with thrilling ensemble scenes”
Love is in the air in Regent’s Park. Director Kimberley Sykes takes on Romeo and Juliet in the Open Air Theatre’s first production of the summer. And there are fewer finer places to experience the traditional coupling of English Summer and Outdoor Shakespeare than this superb park setting.
It is a fast-paced, energetic production. Sykes shaves off a bit of time – the opening chorus is gone and the ending is rethought – and races through the action without an interval.
The drama is set in a neglected Verona in need of urban regeneration with rubble-strewn streets and a fissure across the stage – the site of an earthquake eleven years previously. The Nurse (Emma Cunniffe) lays down a remembrance to her lost daughter Susan which is immediately desecrated by a gang of youths and hints at the violence to come.
The crack symbolises the division between the two families. On one side, the Capulets dressed in white; on the other the Montagues in black. It is an onstage human chess game, but this is speed chess and the pace is unrelenting. Sykes wants us to believe that the players take no time to think, no time to ponder on their next move. Decisions are rashly made and the consequences are tragic.
The backstage structure of four levels of scaffolding is further evidence of the decline of the city and provides great variety of height for the actors and, when the time comes, a sweat-inducing climb for Romeo to reach his Juliet’s bedroom. But this distance between the levels is not always a positive thing; conversations are stretched over too large a space and it is difficult to believe that the two lovers could have been struck down at first sight whilst masked and so extremely socially-distanced.
Subtle technical support means that every word of the text is heard and the actors are not required to over-project. The whole cast is excellent with thrilling ensemble scenes. Juliet (Isabel Adomakoh Young) catches the eye and when she smiles, it is pure sunshine. Romeo (Joel MacCormack) is a love-sick puppy, bounding up and down the stage, his softly spoken dialogue most convincing. Tybalt (Michelle Fox) is a chillingly cool Queen of Cats and her battle with Mercutio (Cavan Clarke) one of the standout scenes of the evening. Friar Lawrence (Peter Hamilton Dyer), with his wise words, is the master tactician and the sole participant in the story allowed to take his time.
There is humour in the production but the traditional comic elements of the Nurse are more downplayed than often. There is poignancy too: after each death, the actor stands – the spirit rising from the body – and observes the ongoing proceedings from afar, leaving an eerie empty space where their body had fallen.
Kimberley Sykes has intentionally created a breakneck speed production of this most told tale and some elements of the work are undoubtedly lost in this manner. But, outside in an English summer’s evening, I am happy to enjoy this reminder of Shakespeare’s great work – the love, the tragedy, the fights, the poetry – and leave a more ponderous undertaking of the text for the winter (indoors).
“keeps the signature ambiguity of Pinter’s work on the front burner”
It is fitting that Harold Pinter’s “The Dumb Waiter” should re-open at Hampstead Theatre exactly sixty years after its London premiere on the same stage; then called the Hampstead Theatre Club, housed in a parish church hall. This anniversary production was scheduled for March of this year, but an extended Pinteresque pause (caused by you-know-what) pushed it into the theatre’s winter programme. Its themes are befitting too: the two characters in the play are playing a waiting game, with mystifying and contradictory information drip fed to them from on high.
Holed up in a bleak, oppressive and windowless basement are two gunmen. Silence stretches across the first few moments, rich in meaning. Ben reads a newspaper while Gus ties his shoelaces. Ben flicks a page of the paper while Gus walks to the door, then takes his shoes off, one by one, to take out a flattened cigarette carton and matchbox. They are both useless. Later on, an envelope is mysteriously delivered containing a dozen loose matches. Why? Moments like these puncture the absurdism to reveal a darker, more ominous side to the writing in Pinter’s earlier works.
Alice Hamilton’s sensitive and stark direction enhances the sense of foreboding whilst still allowing the comedy to shine through. But the onus is on the performances. Alec Newman, as Ben and Shane Zaza, as Gus, are a cracking, Cockney double act. They brilliantly handle the vaudeville rhythms of the dialogue, lulling us into a false sense of security with poetically mundane humour before delivering a punch. Ben wants Gus to light the kettle, but Gus explains that you don’t light the kettle; you light the gas, then boil the kettle. The banter has a hilarious drunkard logic to it, but you can feel an undercurrent bubbling away. Ben appears to be keeping a lid on something and Newman perfectly evokes the strain of trying to stop it boiling over.
Both Newman and Zaza capture immaculately the balance of power and dynamics in their relationship. Although not quite the protégé, Gus still sees Ben as his mentor. An odd couple, testing each other, talking over each other, with Ben repeatedly calling the shots. And forever in the background is the dumb waiter itself, from which, bizarrely, food orders are delivered as though they are in a restaurant’s basement kitchen.
But the ‘dumb waiter’ could also be either of the two characters. Like in like Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”, this is an absurdist comedy about two men waiting in a universe without meaning or purpose. But they’re not as dumb as they look. They play the comedy against the menace, the familiar against the unfamiliar, with an ambiguity that keeps you guessing.
How much does Ben know? Who is the victim? Or are they both victims of a higher order? Puppets even – with somebody else pulling the strings – both low down in the pecking order. Although Ben is slightly higher up, he is still just a follower of orders, and the symbolic crashing down of the dumb waiter is the hand that forces him to carry them out. Or does he?
A short, one act piece that keeps the signature ambiguity of Pinter’s work on the front burner, but also a deeply personal play about betrayal that is given a touching and human face by this fine acting duo.