A harsh, industrial scaffold set suggests a backdrop of urban war for this dark, modern take on Romeo and Juliet at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre.
The gravel covered ground is severed with a crack along the centre, the stage front sloping off like a trench. It’s a literal representation of the play’s warring divisions, but a brutally efficient one.
The centre is dominated by a cross that acts as both altar and grave, sandbags hanging tentatively in balance. In Naomi Dawson’s production, death is pervasive – the souls of the dead literally leaving their bodies to join us in the audience.
Beyond the stark monochromatic costumes and modernist set, it’s the casting that brings this timeless tale up to date. Colour and gender don’t matter here, with a wonderfully diverse cast and gender-swapped roles for the likes of Tybalt (the cold Michelle Fox) and Benvolia (a heartfelt Aretha Ayeh). It proves the power of Shakespeare’s narrative that resonates universally.
It’s Isabel Adomakoh Young’s Juliet who really takes control of her destiny – and the play. She begins as youthful and energetic, but matures quickly to become a fierce and headstrong young woman who rebels against her parents. Ellie Beavan and Andrew French as Lady and Lord Capulet swing from doting to strict in an instant in tense scenes towards the end, but Juliet’s disobedience is less rebellious youth and more a young woman standing up for her right to choose. It’s here that Dawson’s production is at its most modern and feminist.
Elsewhere, Cavan Clarke’s Mercutio is eccentric yet biting and Emma Cunniffe brings some levity as the Nurse. But the production revels in melodrama, racing through the script in the first half without enough time for its central romance to develop. And by comparison to Young’s Juliet, Joel MacCormack’s Romeo lacks the grit to really add believable spark to their relationship.
The play’s final moments still hit hard, however. This Romeo and Juliet emphasises the madness of love, how it blinds us, how it causes death. When it all ends up in flames – literally – we question if it’s love or madness that burns so bright.
3 / 5
Tickets for Romeo and Juliet at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre are available from London Theatre Direct.
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