A high-concept ‘Romeo and Juliet’ at the Open Air Theatre tempers the play’s passion
What would Romeo and Juliet be like if it were set in a deserted world ravaged by an earthquake, director Kimberley Sykes seems to ask with her conceptual-yet-concise production of the Bard's classic romance-come-tragedy at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre.
However, said earthquake — probably a reference to the Nurse's line in Act 1 Scene III "'Tis since the earthquake now 11 years" — seems to have jumbled more than just the Montagues and the Capulets, leaving this production a bit disjointed and depending on high concept ideas rather than textual nuance.
Naomi Dawson's stark set accentuates the rubble of the world we find ourselves in, with what seems to be a fault line crack down the center of the stage. Scaffolding is the main physical structure we see, and center stage, a cross-come-balanced-scale rests, just waiting for one side of this families' rivalry to fall. It's all a little bit too overt, even the costumes are equally divided with the Montagues in black and the Capulets in white.
However, where design leaves very little subtlety, the text is interpreted and performed with immense clarity. While the cast doesn't provide the most inventive takes on these classic characters, the dialogue comes through as almost a contemporary play, well-acted and understandable for even the Shakespeare neophyte.
But where there is emphasis on understanding, there is less fire and passion (even though there is literal fire in one scene). The chemistry between the titular lovers (Isabel Adomakoh Young and Joel MacCormack) doesn't sizzle, and it seems like Juliet just wants to escape her oppressive family and societal role and Romeo seems like a nice rebellion, not her true love.
The gender-bent casting with Michelle Fox as Tybalt and a wonderful Aretha Ayeh as Benvolio (now, Benvolia) is a nice touch, and there are standout performances from Peter Hamilton Dyer as the Friar and Emma Cunniffe as the Nurse, both smaller roles that shine through in this telling.
Running at about two hours with no intermission, the text has been cut down, leaving mostly the famous bits, of which there are many, and the production can begin to feel like a showcase of famous soliloquies, deaths, and love scenes.
With a gorgeous sunset and a beautiful evening under the stars as the backdrop, any night at the Open Air Theatre is a good one, and even if the production isn't breaking the mold in a year overflowing with streaming and live productions of Romeo and Juliet (It's at The Globe this summer too, after a streamed production from The National Theatre), there's a lot to take away from this story of "woe."
After all, in a world where divisions run rampant and nuance seems to be lost, it's important to remember that we are stronger than what divides us and forgiveness is more powerful than hate.
Photo credit: Joel MacCormack and Isabel Adomakoh Young as Romeo and Juliet (Photo by Jane Hobson)
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