Photo credit: Alfred Enoch as Romeo, Rebekah Murrell as Juliet, Sargon Yelda as Friar Laurence (Photo by Marc Brenner)

'Romeo and Juliet' at Shakespeare's Globe plays against the natural poetry

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

The parade of late of Romeo and Juliets - whether online or in three dimensions - continues its uneven pace with the Globe's new production of a time-honoured tragedy that here has been so textually butchered that it often feels as if you're getting the outtakes of Shakespeare's play rather than the work itself. Ola Ince, the director, has done astonishing work elsewhere, not least her brilliant staging of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's Appropriate for the Donmar Warehouse in late-summer 2019.

But not for the first time at this address, a gifted theatremaker has stumbled on the difficult hurdle posed by relevance. I'm as supportive as the next person when it comes to enabling these timeless dramas to live anew, but that isn't remotely the same as reducing a knotty and linguistically luxuriant play to the equivalent of a public service address. If Shakespeare is going to be treated that reductively, we might as well be sent pamphlets instead of tickets, which would save everyone involved a lot of time.

From the outset of a show running 110 minutes (no interval), we get one or another statistic or declaration about suicide, mental illness, or the like projected above the stage, each of which is spoken aloud by one of the characters. "About 20 percent of young teenagers experience depression," Juliet announces at the outset, though it's not clear whether we are meant specifically to link that remark to the specific narrative of Shakespeare's barely pubescent heroine, who has available to her an arsenal of language that would be the envy of anyone of any age, whether then or now. Later, we're told that "75 percent of children with mental health problems are not receiving treatment" - a sorrowful fact that doesn't in itself amplify Shakespeare's artistry and, indeed, exists as a strange substitute for it.

The text itself has been so chopped to smithereens that one clings on to certain lines as if to a life raft, especially in light of the competition posed by modern-day precepts on the order of "it is dangerous for women to go outside alone." Silas Carson's Capulet, for instance, makes something memorable of this play's definably Beckettian remark to the effect that "we were born to die," which has a standalone power amidst a staging that scarcely allows for any sustained dynamic between any of the characters. The masked ball is here a modern-day gig that could be accompanied by the cast album for Six, the power of the title characters' burgeoning attraction undone by the banality of such assertions as "love is a matter of life or death for young people who don't have a secure attachment to a guardian."

One can imagine the wonderful Alfred Enoch - so good recently in the West End reboot of John Logan's Red - in happier circumstances constituting a Romeo worth reckoning with, just as Josh O'Connor did earlier this year opposite Jessie Buckley onscreen: the two men finding a potency in a role as often as not overshadowed by its distaff equivalent. But Enoch and his Juliet, Rebekah Murrell, are barely allowed to develop a shared head of steam, and Murrell, fresh from her West End assignment directing the buoyant Yasmin Joseph play J'Ouvert, seems to have been encouraged to play against the natural poetry in Juliet: the result is a strident performance that resists audience engagement.

Adam Gillen's Mercutio in much the same vein sacrifices the charisma of that showstopping role on the altar of an overeager pushiness that worked brilliantly for this fine actor when he played Mozart in the National's Amadeus but reaps dimishing returns here. The ending when it comes feels less like a savage date with destiny and more like an arbitrary conclusion to an evening that has run out of pronouncements to make to the public. You exit the Globe wondering why these actors bothered at the outset of the show to introduce themselves when the production that has followed has in no way encouraged us to get to know them.

Romeo and Juliet is running through October 17 at Shakespeare's Globe to 17 October. Book Romeo and Juliet tickets in the West End on London Theatre now.

Photo credit: Alfred Enoch as Romeo, Rebekah Murrell as Juliet, Sargon Yelda as Friar Laurence (Photo by Marc Brenner)

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