THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Nature is healing and to prove it, that staple of London's summer cultural calendar, the Open-Air Theatre, has re-opened, kicking off what promises to be a great season with a lively and youthful Romeo and Juliet.
Their excellent programme booklet has some wonderful stills from the seven previous productions of it here, going back 89 years. The first time out, in 1934, Greer Garson was in the ensemble, before she departed for Hollywood. It reminds us that a stint "in the park" has been right of passage for so many young actors who went on to became stars.
For this version, director Kimberley Sykes, has put together a sterling cast. None are 'names', yet, but they're experienced and they're the best thing about this production, which too often falls into many of the laboured clichés associated with Shakespeare productions these days. It has all the fashionable tropes: a contemporary setting, gender blind casting, a melange of accents, a grimy 'street' aesthetic, club music etc. all to make it more relevant. Some of it works, some doesn't and mostly it doesn't aid clarity, which you'd think would be the main driver of these choices in the first place, in the search for that elusive youth audience. As Coco Chanel put it "Fashion is what goes out of fashion".
The set is the main culprit. When confronted with the sylvan splendour of this stage, with nature's own splendid backdrop of trees and where the actors compete every night with a dusk chorus of songbirds, why when staging a romantic classic in this space, does designer Naomi Dawson feel the need to opt for a set of such unremitting ugliness? It's essentially just bare scaffolding on a mud stage. She redeems herself with the costumes though. The inevitable DMs and black Levis are de rigueur, but they're cleverly adorned with some audacious clubbing gear for the ball scene, with lots of gold lamé. Giles Thomas's music and sound design are exceptional, perfectly underscoring the drama and bringing a desperately needed romantic flourish.
The stark design does leave all the imaginative heavy lifting to the cast but, thankfully, they all rise to the occasion. Sykes has beautifully calibrated the performances and the verse speaking is top class throughout. It allows the poetry to take flight, unencumbered by the need to balance the verse with all the frenetic action.
Joel MacCormack brings a real solidity and intelligence to Romeo, elevating him above the usual lusty youth and he's complemented greatly by Isabel Adomakoh Young who manages to make this Juliet much more than a dewy-eyed schoolgirl. She's got presence and resembles a young Sophie Okonedo and will be one to watch. The chemistry between the star-crossed lovers is great too and allows the pair to soar above the production at crucial moments.
Emma Cunniffe gives the Nurse a more solemn edge rather the usual flapping matron and Ellie Beaven also stands out as Lady Capulet. Michelle Fox as Tybalt is more screechy than imposing and Cavan Clarke's Ulster tones make his Mercutio sound even more of an impulsive hot head. As the bodies pile up their ghosts rise up and retire for a rest to the front row. A nice touch.