Romeo and Juliet at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge

Romeo and Juliet, dir. Tom Littler, presented by the Marlowe Society, Cambridge Arts Theatre, 27 January 2018

Not a review, but some thoughts and observations in response. This is at least the fourth student production of Romeo and Juliet that I’ve seen in Cambridge (the first was also the Marlowe in 2001, with a near-unknown Tom Hiddleston as Romeo – he’s one to watch, we thought; the second was directed by the near-unknown Rob Icke, in a production concept that he subsequently reworked for Headlong).

Student productions can make the play’s generational divides harder to bring off, but also make the lovers all the more likely to break your heart, even if you don’t teach any of the cast. Harry Redding’s Romeo a Nice Boy, straightforward, a bit baffled; close with his mates (a particularly warm and lively Benvolio, from Harry Burke; a sly, firebrand Mercutio, from Saskia Ross). Matilda Wickham’s Juliet assured and more sophisticated than many, and tweaked in the text as ‘not eighteen’. Both the lovers grew in confidence, but also in gravitas and a sense of emotional maturity as the play developed – as they should – and as the text allows – in the longer, more expansive and elaborate later speeches. I appreciated here that the writing in the play’s first half gives them lightness, youth, playfulness, speed, notes which they also need to take into the deeper emotional contours of the second half. The meeting at the party (which we persist in calling a ball) a little underplayed and lost in the busy-ness of the stage: the intensified lighting made the moment pop, but there could have been more sense of the seismic emotional jolt – and the electricity of the hands, the kiss – more stillness. The balcony scene played straight – clear, charming; the intensity perhaps a little diluted through the tactic of having Romeo play his lines out front, as if Juliet had been in the balcony of the theatre rather than the perfectly decent balcony on the stage (although it was nice to see his happy face). In general, the lovers were oddly restrained? decorous? chaste? in their physicality (especially in the aubade) – until the tomb scene, where Juliet’s cradling of her dead husband had a fierce intimacy that was very moving.

Having spent days earlier this month thinking about the play’s opening and why it’s there (all that Gregory and Sampson stuff), it was bracing? galling? instructive? to see it simply cut: Prologue, a lively all-in brawl, and then the Prince: ‘Rebellious subjects’. It worked, although I’d make the case (of course) for retaining Sampson and Gregory (and this was by far the biggest cut in the play; there were lines played in the final scene, and in the scene of Juliet’s death, that are very frequently cut). I haven’t thought before about why Mercutio isn’t in that first scene: was the original actor doubling the Prince, perhaps? or is it just that it works better with Benvolio and Romeo alone? Throughout the play, some skilful redeploying of lines from Capulet to Lady Capulet, and Montague to Lady Montague – why can’t this be done more often? I liked Adam Mirsky’s Friar Lawrence’s youthful cynicism and air of making it up as he went along (and the chain smoking; mind you, everybody smoked, including Juliet on the balcony). I hadn’t thought before that the Friar could be believably close to Romeo in age, and he handled the long exposition in the final scene – which is so often trimmed – very well.

It made a nice change to see the play set in A Period, not the present, here 1930s Andalucia. There was a palpable sense of heat in the crowd scenes; the rhythmic clapping and stamping that backed moments of high tension mostly worked quite well, and the verse often had a driving pulse, as well as generally being very clear. I enjoyed the show, and it’s given me much to think about – and I’m filled with admiration for the bright, talented cast and crew who are able to pull off such a project at their age and stage, when it’s not even meant to be their day job….

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