Romeo and Juliet

GUARDIAN 16.4.87 Nicholas de Jongh

Michael Bogdanov's revival of Romeo and Juliet, first seen last spring in Stratford, is an astounding set of conjurer's tricks which obliterates Shakespeare's Verona and whisks the play into a high-technology post-dolce-vita Italy, where electric guitars, a real red sports car, a marble-topped desk and a priest on a motorbike are the signs or icons of the times.


The prince, who seems more mafiosi than regal, and a big-business vulgar Capulet, or a villainous drugs dealer replacing the apothecary, suggest the quality of the thoroughly modern society in which Romeo and Juliet go down.

The production therefore can be seen as a series of short, sharp shocks by which tradition is overthrown - sometimes with those extraneous dollops of comedy which suggest that inside Bogdanov something quite vulgar is struggling to get out and succeeding.


Yet you cannot deny the revival's abounding sense of excitement and vitality, it's a high bid for young audiences, for whom Shakespeare is normally the sound of boredom. It sometimes seems as if Bogdanov is trying to go the way of West Side Story, but at least his production is underpinned by an idea. Bogdanov's version emphasises how much erotic love is still subordinated to family concepts of materialism and status.


The raw comedy of this society is chiefly visual, sometimes tangential, with public display or joyfulness running in counterpoint to private grief: the banished Romeo is caught up in a carnival procession and a wedding band salutes the dead Juliet; the partygoers at the Capulet feast, who plunge fully-clothed into a pool, and a Benvolio swigging alka seltzer in the piazza after the party, show up hedonism at play.


And the concluding tableau, an interpolated funeral service with the lovers now commemorated by gold statues, makes a final dramatic point.
But there are doubts as well. Chris Dyer's stage design, a bare marble
piazza with statue and pillars and a backdrop for brlown-up black and white montage photographs, is indelibly Italian yet the cast are thoroughly Anglo-Saxon, lacking Italianate temperament. The production is also far happier with scenes of large scale communality, and misses the rising passion of the two lovers.


But these public scenes work quite brilliantly. I have never seen the brawl in which Mercutio is killed so dynamically staged. Tybalt's arrival in the red sports car precipitates a battle of knives and chains and strangleholds. And Sean Bean's Romeo reacts to death in a sudden electrifying crescendo of energy, spreadeagling Mercutio upon his cherished car and stabbing him to a nasty death.

You may wonder what the working classes are doing with such demotic
implements but there is no doubting the craft with which they are wielded. On the other hand Bogdanov is less easy with the play's intimate scenes of revelation and desire. Sean Bean's blond muscular Romeo is at first most suitably the epitome of slow, simpleminded diffidence, but when love breaks he is quite underwhelmed.


Similarly Niamh Cusack's Juliet looks all flaming and modestly voluptuous in red, but maintains an obstinate calm, even on that snatched night when the lovers keep their cool and, surprisingly, their clothes.


The play's chief antidotes to romanticism, Michael Kitchen's alcoholic
Mercutio, obviously infatuated with Romeo, or Dilys Laye's genteel Nurse are curiously muted. And it is Hugh Quarshie's pantherlike Tybalt, vibrating with danger, who provides the right kind of exhilaration and passion. This is a revival to draw the young.



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