The production that Barrie Rutter described in the after-show talk sounded wonderful in principle, but sadly it bore little relation to the play I had just seen. An extraordinarily young-looking Juliet, (played with freshness and energy by Sarah Ridgeway) was far and away the best thing in this rather shambolic production. She was by turns sweet, pasisonate, naïve and worldy, and her love was totally convincing from first to last. Her death-scene was apallingly garbled and wasted, but I feel this had more to do with the direction than her acting. Romeo, however (Benedict Fogerty in his debut), simply couldn’t bear the weight of the part. His verse-speaking was admirably clear, but his Romeo was all wild eyes and wild hair – and little else. He was lacking in passion, and his love for Juliet was stilted and unconvincing. Rutter’s insistence on finding the rhythm of every phrase makes for very clear dialogue, but is also rather self-indulgent at times and becomes slow and heavy to listen to. This lack of pace would be more excusable if there were something exciting to look at, but the bare wooden stage of the New Vic and meagre props offered no spectacle. I have no objections to minimalist sets, but the acting must then be superlative in order to carry the audience with them and away from the empty theatre space, something this production failed to do. I was no closer to Verona than if I had attempted a flight from terminal five. The incidental musical interludes were mostly successful, making the Capulet ball into a wild romp woked – until the coutly masque became a taditional clog-dance, which was bizarre to say the least. I know Rutter likes to incorporate traditional Northern elements into all his performances, but as with any additions to Shakespeare, it must be justified, and this exuberantly noisy dance, although exhilerating and fun in itself, did not sit well alongside the more traditional elements of this production. What should have been an extraordinarily poignant moment of a jolly wedding march entering Juliet’s chamber to find her dead was spoiled by miss-timed bells and a general lack of gravitas. Furthermore, I do not find brass intruments as intrinsically amusing as the cast and director appeared to.
Juliet’s last speech was given well, but again failed to convery much tragedy – most of the pathos of the scene came from the fact that Ridgeway looks so young rather than what she said or did. The Nurse (Sue McCormick) seemed not to have understood any of the subtleties of her speech, her double-entendres may as well have been singles for all apparent word-play, which made her come across as merely inappropriate not amusing and ribald. The other servants provided much more humour, particularly a spectacularly camp and long-suffering Peter (Thomas Dyer Blake) who made the most of a small role.
The main problem with this production was that there was little variation. The comic interludes had less impact because they were not accompanied by equally high-octane tragic scenes. All of the (many!) deaths were thrown-away, Mercutio’s epic curse ‘a plague on both your houses’ might as well have been asking for a pint and he did not appear to be in any pain from his fatal stab-wound. The inability to feel pain was a common problem, Romeo’s poisoned death, Juliet’s stabbing of herself, Tybalt’s murder, Paris’s murder, they all passed away with barely a murmer. I am not asking for buckets of blood and realistic screams, but such momentous scenes in the play were thrown away and failed to tug the heartstrings at all. There was little evidence of emotional pain in the play either – Lady Montague (Kate-Lynne Hocking) was convincingly distraught at Romeo’s banishment, but Lady Capulet’s (Lisa Howard) grief at finding her only child dead on her wedding day managed to be both mechanical and melodramatic. Barrie Rutter’s Capulet was big of gesture and voice, but sadly small of emotional range. Romeo’s pain at the news of Juliet’s death was unconvincing and wooden. Once again, the only actor with any emotional depth was Sarah Ridgeway, whose horror at the thought of being forced to marry County Paris was palpable, her defience of her father was stirring and did not descend into petulent teenager territory, and her grief at Tybalt’s death and Romeo’s banishment was utterly captivating. It is a mark of desperation, perhaps, on the part of a director who is emphatically against ‘naturalism’ onstage that Romeo and Juliet begin the second half stark naked (apart from Juliet’s tasteful g-string) in a bid to engage the audience’s attention. Sadly for the actors, getting naked in front of an audience of school children is a bad idea, but the fact that the audience remained restless throughout the second half is a good way of judging how well -or, in this case, badly- the play worked. What began as an exuberant and lively romp failed to attain tragedy at any point, and teetered between farce and melodrama.