ROMEO AND JULIET at OVO at The Roman Theatre
“This is a fine production for a summer’s evening”
It is the time for theatre to go into the outdoors and the annual smatterings of summer Shakespeares in parks and gardens around the country. There is no finer setting for this than amongst the Roman ruins in St Albans.
Co-directors Stephanie Allison and Amy Connery show Shakespeare’s relevance today with a bold reimagining of the script and by transferring the story to 1990s Belfast at the time of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. Live music from an onstage band – guitar, bass, violin – provide Irish-inspired tunes to help the mood (Musical Director Tommaso Cagnoni).
The set (Designer Simon Nicholas) is dominated by an iron derrick, daubed with graffiti and the words Peace by Piece. Stacks of boxes, pallets and sacks surround it, some marked helpfully with the word Belfast. This is a working dock and the lads set the scene by throwing sacks around before we see the first evidence of a city divided. A spunky Tybalt (Katie Hamilton) taunts the rather soft Benvolio (Lyle Fulton) and an eight-person rumble ensues. The fight is presented most effectively in the form of contemporary dance (Choreographer Felipe Pacheco), with shades of West Side Story. Lady Montague (Anna Macleod Franklin) lays down the law by talking of the Good Friday Agreement. Not in iambic pentameter but certainly within the spirit of the classic text.
We meet a sullen Romeo (Ryan Downey) clearly showing his depression, but even with the use of a head mic, some projection remains necessary, and Downey’s downcast mumbling sadly loses so much of his diction. This is to be a problem for much of the evening.
The Queen Mab story helps pick up the pace due to an energetic telling by Mercutio (Jenson Parker-Stone). Parker-Stone offers the performance of the night with fine singing and a spirit that lifts the production each time he is on stage. (What a shame his character gets killed off midway through the story.)
Romeo is broken out of his melancholy with one of the finest scenes – a three-part harmony rendition of Things Can Only Get Better – but the energy drops again for the Capulet’s party with little onstage movement. Even Romeo and Juliet’s first meeting and their sharing of the love sonnet doesn’t excite. Later the couple will perform a dumb show/slow dance (to The Cranberries poignant Zombie) as they spend their sole night together. Despite some good work from Francesca Eldred as Juliet, the couple together lack any sense of the joy of experiencing love for the first time. The spark isn’t there.
As the tragedy plays itself out, Ben Whitehead as the Friar, dressed in double denim, (Costumes Emma Lyth) exploits his inner Reverend Ian Paisley; Anna Macleod Franklin takes a second role as the totally loveable Nurse and beautifully sings Nanci Griffith’s I Would Bring You Ireland as the young lovers are married; and Faith Turner as Lady Capulet gives a fine performance with her argument with Juliet about marriage: the words truly coming from her heart not from the page.
This is a fine production for a summer’s evening. The use of popular music with adapted lyrics to illustrate the text works well – The Pogues’ Sally MacLennane is a fine example; the fight scenes are dramatically portrayed with energetic kicks and punches; and the adherence to much of the original words of Shakespeare, despite the transfer into modern day Northern Island, is praiseworthy. The production deserves to appeal to the widest audience.
Reviewed on 7th June 2023
by Phillip Money
Photography by Elliott Franks
Previously reviewed at this venue: