‘Romeo & Juliet’ Theater Review: Tom Holland Disappoints in Return to the Stage, But Another Star Is Born

There’s been a lot of heat around London’s new Romeo & Juliet, understandably so given its pairing of director Jamie Lloyd (Betrayal, A Doll’s House), known for his radical remodeling of classics, usually around A-list actors, with young global superstar Tom Holland. The latter is returning to the stage for the first time since Billy Elliot: The Musical at the very start of his career, his name causing tickets to sell out in just two hours.

It’s ironic, then, that one thing this production itself lacks is heat — romantic, dramatic, tragic heat. There is much to commend, but it suffers from a single, strategic mistake on the director’s part, to mute the action, quite literally, since much of it is played in whispers and mumbles; even miked, at times the actors are barely audible. The result is that this tale of violent family rivalry and courageous love has been denuded of its zest, danger and romance, urgency replaced by a pervading melancholy.

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At first glance — hardcore club music blaring onto a bare stage that has only the merest of monochrome trimmings; actors clad in uniformly black garb (t-shirts, hoodies, boots); and the presence of microphone stands — it looks as though this will go the same way as Lloyd’s terrific Cyrano de Bergerac: contemporary, youthful, dynamic. That play, though, featured James McAvoy’s Cyrano as a master of the rap battle; once this one gets going, the beats replaced by an industrial hum, the tempo and temperature are altogether different.

The biggest victim of the approach is the star turn. For the most part, Holland’s Romeo is a subdued, teary, vulnerable, underwhelming fellow; it’s hard to see why Juliet would go to such lengths for him. When the lad does explode to life — literally a couple of moments of shouty excitement — it feels forced. While Holland does get to show his puppy-like sweetness and buffed Spiderman physique, he surely has a better Romeo in him than this one.

In contrast, this deserves to be a star-making turn for Francesca Amewudah-Rivers, who has triumphed over the torrent of online racial abuse she received when cast. The actress, best known in the U.K. for television work that includes Bad Education, but with Shakespearean theater turns in Macbeth and Othello, is magnificent, her Juliet the spiky, self-aware, fiercely independent pulse of the production.

While other actors (and their characters) are diminished by Lloyd’s lower-key passages, Amewudah-Rivers always manages to rise above, with a decibel more emotion, whether quarrelsomeness or spleen or playfulness. Her Juliet totally commands Romeo, while scenes between Juliet and her father, Capulet (Tomiwa Edun) — the pair at furious odds over her resistance to the marriage he has arranged for her — are brutal and compelling.

Alongside Edun, there’s also excellent support from Freema Agyeman as the nurse, at first wonderfully funny (and delivering some of the purely Shakespearean verve that is lacking around her) then offering the character’s own tragedy as she advises her charge against her heart; and Michael Balogun’s friar, who lends his deus ex machina more than the usual substance.

It’s impossible for Lloyd to offer a dull production. The beautiful minimal aesthetic is elaborated and enhanced by the presence of two camera operators, whose live images are projected onto a screen that dominates the rear of the stage. Sometimes they follow the actors as they move through the bowels of the theatre, and at one point catch up with Romeo as he smokes a cigarette on the roof; but they are most telling when offering widescreen close-ups that really pop — especially when everyone in the theater can see the tears of anger and dismay flow down Amewudah-Rivers’ cheeks, or when she declares “If all else fails, I still have power to die.”

While the use of cameras is becoming common, a more original tactic here is to remove all the key items of the play’s signature scenes: the balcony from the courtship scene; the swords of the fateful fight between Tibald and Mercutio (all we need to know conveyed with a highly effective jump scare); the poison and the dagger in the final, tragic encounter. Without the props and the physical action of using them, the focus is on the emotions at play, and all the better for it.

Venue: Duke of York’s Theatre, London
Cast: Tom Holland. Francesca Amewudah-Rivers, Freema Agyeman, Michael Balogun, Tomiwa Edun, Daniel Quinn-Toye, Ray Sesay, Nima Taleghani, Joshua-Alexander Williams.
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Jamie Lloyd
Set and costume designer: Soutra Gilmour
Lighting designer: Jon Clark
Music: Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante
Sound designers: Ben and Max Ringham
Video designers and cinematographers: Nathan Amzi and Joe Ransom
Text editor: Nima Taleghani
Presented by The Jamie Lloyd Company

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