"Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona, where we lay our scene…” these are arguably the most famous opening lines to any play by Shakespeare. And of all his 37 plays, Romeo and Juliet is arguably the most famous. In fact, of all the love stories ever told, including The Notebook, the tale of these two star-crossed lovers sits high on a pedestal, waiting, indefinitely, for a worthy couple to knock them off.
Much has been said about The Rose theatre; the ambitious pop-up auditorium, set against the iconic backdrop of Clifford’s Tower and Yorkshire Museum. After hearing the hype, I was nervous that it wouldn’t live up to expectations. I should not have worried; the attention to detail was wonderful and wandering around the stalls in the balmy late-summer evening, was nothing short of magical. I wish I had arrived earlier - the serving wenches were most friendly and hospitable, but sadly I arrived too late to enjoy the Mussels.
West End director Lindsay Posner, faced the daunting challenge of re-interpreting the tragedy; making it appealing both to those who have loved it since their first encounter as well as a new audience, visiting York and looking for a way to enjoy a couple of hours in the city. As a generation we have been spoiled: 20 years ago Baz Luhrmann dragged the Bard into the 20th century. He did what many English students, stifled in musty school rooms, only dared to dream… love it or hate it - he made Shakespeare sexy.
During Lee Newby’s 30s inspired design, for the first time I can remember, I found myself laughing through much of the first two acts. Indeed, well into the third. The tension of the escalating brawls and melodrama of families in crisis is balanced beautifully by masterful comic performances from the supporting cast. Most notably Capulet, played by Robert Gwilym, is thrilling to watch - equal parts doting father and terrifying East-end hard man - and Tom Lorcan’s delightful portrayal of pragmatic wing-man Benvolio.
While remaining faithful to the text, Posner explores the underlying themes of faith, sexuality, and - through Paris’ wooing of the young ingénue - what would be considered paedophilia by today’s standards.
It is, of course, our young lovers that prompt the most interesting discussion. While dramatically necessary, audiences have often questioned the rashness Romeo & Juliet’s love and how quickly their fate unravels. What Posner portrays so beautifully is that two teenagers, on the threshold of adulthood, consumed the deep, foolish and unsettling nature of first love… and how fiercely it burns. Stripped back of romanticism, Alexander Vlahos’ Romeo is the epitome of the brooding teen “Adding to clouds more clouds with his deep sighs”, the audience is invited to see the humour in how quickly his eye is turned and whether he really is expecting a little ‘satisfaction’ at the close of the balcony scene. Though initially more pragmatic, Alexandra Dowling’s Juliet is soon overwhelmed by the urgency of this blossoming relationship, largely spurred by her sexual awakening. Romeo really must “kiss by the book” because they cannot keep their hands off each other.
This is the juxtaposition that Posner toys with throughout; humour and tragedy, innocence and experience; despite the enormity of their love, both heroes measure their expectations through references to childhood, because that is all they have:
R: “Love goes toward love as schoolboys from their books, But love from love, toward school with heavy looks” J: “So tedious is this day / As is the night before some festival / To an impatient child that hath new robes / And may not wear them.”
I cannot heap enough praise on Julie Legrand and David Fleeshman playing shadow parents Nurse and Friar Lawrence respectfully. They are both a scene-stealing joy to watch, sublime delivery and impeccable timing. I left wishing the Bard had written them a spin-off.
This might not be steeped in romance as depicted by Zeffirelli, or the sexy telling by Baz Luhrman, but in remaining faithful but playful with Shakespeare’s text, this undoubtedly feels more tangible. For a night transported to Elizabethan England, watching a quality production, I highly recommend a night at The Rose, suspend your disbelief - you will not be disappointed.Buy Tickets Here