What better setting could there be for a tale about a pair of 'star-crossed lovers' than under the clear skies of London on a balmy night in June? Well, Italy perhaps! But London's Regent's Park is still a very special, almost magical setting. And a play based on fate and what the stars hold in store is reflected in a new beginning for the Open Air Theatre itself – this is the first year for their new artistic director, Timothy Sheader, who steers the course for this first production in the Open Air Theatre's brand new season.
'Romeo and Juliet' starts off with a slow-mo style fight scene. Though the device itself isn't new, it was a powerful way to get across the idea of warring families, and shows that Sheader has a keen interest in movement in general which was also demonstrated elsewhere in the play.
The boy-meets-girl plot is simple enough to follow, and there can't be many people who don't know the basics. Essentially, Romeo is feeling miserable because his amorous advances have been spurned by a girl he fancies. His mates decide to cheer him up by gate-crashing a do that the rival family, the Capulets, are holding, and Romeo's affections are redirected towards Juliet and from thereon in, their fate is sealed.
Fotini Dimou's costume design takes its inspiration from the 1950s (by the looks of it, at least). And that's quite a good choice if you're going to update a play, though the costumes do remind one of 'West Side Story'. But there's a significant gear-change when it comes to the Capulets' party when the order of the day is harlequin-style costumes which lend quite a splash of colour to proceedings.
To accompany the 50s flavoured costumes, the swords are banished in favour of knives, giving us a chilling reminder of the the lethal nature of these weapons and the current tragic plague of injuries and deaths they've brought about throughout the UK.
Richard O' Callaghan produces a fine performance as a cigarette-smoking Friar Lawrence whose humane desire to bring harmony to Verona's streets lands him in the unenviable position of having to explain how Romeo and Juliet happen to end up dead together, and married without their parents' knowledge. O'Callaghan is not a mere do-gooder, he's also a forceful organiser with a good-hearted nature. Not so good natured, however, is Juliet's father - played by Tim Woodward who flings Juliet across the stage in rage when she's reluctant to follow her father's will and be married to Paris.
Claire Benedict is a rather younger nurse than we often see. But at least in terms of the times in which the play was originally set, it makes sense to have a younger rather than an older nurse. And Benedict brings the customary humour to the role with excellent timing. However, she also shows her skills in a different light in a moving scene where she's talking about Tybalt's death.
The stars of the show – Nicholas Shaw as Romeo and Laura Donnelly as Juliet – have all the physical characteristics which most people would expect. Shaw is a lythe and handsome young man with a bouncy kind of character (when he's not moping, that is). And Donnelly is very pretty and petite. Together they make a very attractive couple, and the performances are good, though not exceptional. In particular, I didn't think that Shaw's Romeo really suggested a young man truly smitten by love. But I particularly liked their scene on the balcony just before Romeo leaves Verona for his banishment. Again using a kind of slo-mo effect it brought real tenderness to the moment. And I also liked the scene in the tomb when Juliet begins to wake as Romeo (sitting right next to her) takes the fatal swig of poison without realising that his troubles are over. Sheader's neat direction here reinforces the fact that this pair are doomed from the start.
The previous artistic director at the Open Air Theatre, Ian Talbot, had a prolonged period at the helm, so it's interesting to see how things might change. I don't think there's much difference in terms of the season's programme. However, the regular presentation of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' is being revamped for a younger audience as this year's children's play, and that should be fascinating. There's also the customary musical on offer: this year it's Gigi.
So, is there evidence of a change of directorial style at the Open Air Theatre? I think there most definitely is, but it's subtle rather than something that screams out at you. particularly liked Sheader's use of movement, and he also wove into the production some fine singing in a kind of operatic style which added immensely to the atmosphere even if it sometimes fought the dialogue a little. Overall, 'Romeo and Juliet' has an updated feel to it, but still captures the essential mood of Shakespeare's work focusing on the tragic and fateful elements it contains. A great start which whets the appetite for the rest of the season.
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Stamped with invention, surprise and imagination."RHODA KOENIG for THE INDEPENDENT says, "A strained effort that puts music, dance, and design first, Shakespeare last. Not a single player in the colourless cast speaks with purity, passion, or panache." LYN GARDNER for THE GUARDIAN says, "It doesn't matter how good a director's ideas are about a Shakespeare play, if he can't deliver consistently strong performances and audible, well-spoken verse, the enterprise is scuppered. So it proves with Timothy Sheader's revival." DOMONIC CAVENDISH for the DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Highly recommended." SAM MARLOWE for THE TIMES says, "A ragged and colourless affair. Where it attempts boldness, it misfires; elsewhere it is bland."