As the main event of the Liverpool Shakespeare Festival, this new production of the Bard’s ultimate romance could irk the purists, but packs a punch. A wrestle with the ridiculously overcomplicated and gimmicky programme was the first sign this Romeo & Juliet wasn’t really going to keep things simple.
Loadstar Theatre Company‘s ambitious ideas required the audience to get on board and go with the ride. The costumes, supposed to be a meeting of Victoriana and modern day dress, provided loud, distracting detail that largely resembled an explosion in a New Romantic’s dressing up box. Minimalist it was not; but once one gave in to the bold and garish anachronistic vision unfolding, it became immensely entertaining.
There were many small details interpreted by director Max Rubin that brought interesting new dimensions to this well-worn tale. The balcony scene (complete with David Rankine’s Romeo still half in some rather unsexy fancy dress) was played for giggles and was seriously cute; the Prince was played by a foxy lady for some reason; and the frisson of an affair between Lady Capulet and her nephew Tybalt added an extra, dangerous edge to the grief and rage of Capulet himself (Everyman panto dame Francis Tucker in a rare dramatic turn). Festival producer Simon Hedger made an appearance as Friar Laurence, portrayed as a hippy-ish idealist trying to atone for a secret past. The production went all out to highlight the youth and naiveté of Juliet, with an adorably spirited performance from Rachel Rae.
As the original bawdy Nurse, Haz Webb was great value. John Edon gave a huge, lively performance – perhaps the best of the night — as Mercutio, nicely balanced by the brooding menace of nemesis Tybalt (Richard Kelly). The fight scenes were particularly well choreographed and staged, full of satisfying wallops and sprawls that did not hold back.
It was a fresh, energetic and funny production, with many touches that although while not intended to detract from the text, did so in a way that might not appeal to traditionalists. No doubt there are things to iron out, so it seemed a bit unfair to let the critics in on opening night, especially as there are a few more weeks of performances. There were still issues of acoustics to sort out thanks to the unusual (but beautifully fitting) venue, although at least they were aware of this; and the cast certainly needed to warm up and get over first night nerves.
The first 20 minutes or so of the performance were quite measured and self-conscious, with a great deal of well-spoken prose. This eventually started to slip, and a variety of accents started to come through – Scouse, broad Lancashire, Scottish, West Country — that was confusing at best and distracting at worst. Apparently the production was supposed to have an underlying Liverpool twist to it, which is a nice idea that just wasn’t really made clear enough – Adidas trainees notwithstanding.
Romeo & Juliet is on at St George’s Hall small concert room until September 11.