Romeo and Juliet is undoubtedly Shakespeare’s most performed and adapted play, so any production inevitably has massive boots to fill. With this in mind I was sceptical about whether The Tobacco Factory’s take on the “star cross’d lovers” could really be anything other than tired and cliché.
Thankfully, all my fears were unfounded. I found the production engaging, energetic and, perhaps most difficult to achieve when it comes to Shakespeare, original. This is chiefly due to the brilliant staging by Russian director Polina Kalinina. His decision to set this version somewhere between the late 1960s and early 1970s is a genius move which serves to draw parallels between modern social uprising, experimentation and violence and the tension that permeates the very heart of the society of the play.
One of the other reasons why this production is so invigorating to watch is because of the circular stage structure of The Tobacco Factory. This means that the action happens from a 360 degree angle and, consequently, the audience never feels disengaged from the events onstage. Physical violence is another factor that draws the spectator in. The adaption modernises the traditional staged modes of death and in doing so reaches sickeningly realistic levels of gore. The image on which the play ended, Juliet’s blood-soaked and body-laden bed, seems to encapsulate the central premise of Shakespearean tragedy as a demonstration of the futility and grotesqueness of pride.
Of course, a play is only as good as its cast and the actors in this production showed off young talent at its best. Paapa Essiedu manages to embody the series of oxymoron’s that render Romeo an attractive protagonist: he is at once melancholy and playful, in lust and genuinely in love, fiercely vengeful and despairing of his sin. I found Daisy Whalley’s Juliet a brilliant example of the two opposing interpretations that Juliet affords. In some senses she was sensible, shrewd and more tempered than her older lover, yet she at other times this guise of maturity dropped and her innocence and the purity of her love took centre stage. Her performance convincingly portrayed the naiveté that is central to the character and this was chiefly because of her age. It was refreshing to see a young Juliet, a role which is too often taken on by actresses that appear so mature as to disparage the intensity of what is, after all, an affair of adolescent love.
Another notable performance was that of Sally Oliver’s nurse whose youth also stood in her favour by allowing her to offer a brash, flirty, bawdy interpretation which received most of the audience’s laughs. There was also a suggestion of an affair with Lord Capulet which worked masterfully as to transport the themes of jealousy and rivalry from the public into the private spheres of the play.
For me there was only two slight disappointments. I felt that that Oliver Hoare fell into the trap of overplaying Mercutio, a difficult character to get right because of the sheer force of personality ontained in his lines. Moreover, as the fellow English students who I watched the play with remarked, at times the elaborate staging distracted from the beauty and power of the language.
Nevertheless, the performance was one which smashed expectations in its ability to reawaken the relevance of a story which has so often been made redundant. From the moment that the Clockwork Orange-esque spectacle of the masked ball explodes on to the stage you become not witness to but, rather, participant in the danger and vibrancy of Shakespeare’s not-so “fair Verona.”
Romeo and Juliet is showing at the Tobacco Factory until the 04thApril, with tickets ranging from £12- £24. Book Online: http://www.tobaccofactorytheatres.com/shows/detail/romeo_and_juliet1/, or via the Box Office: 0117 902 0344.