It’s so easy to brush aside a production of Romeo and Juliet – it’s overdone, every one knows it, it’s not innovative. But when it’s staged with energy, passion and commitment, the story shines through and you’re reminded that it’s actually a wonderful play. Wolf-Sister Productions’ version does have some issues, but the vivacity with which they approach the text is truly captivating. A good edit and some phenomenal performances hovering on the edge of the Elizabethan remains of the Rose Playhouse make this Romeo and Juliet quite a special one.
Eight actors take on all of the roles, and four of them are women – a quiet middle finger to traditionalists – but the star performer is James G Nunn as Romeo. Nunn’s emotional and expressive range is phenomenal, and well beyond that normally gifted to the character. He soon renders the audience helpless at his feet as he barrels his way through the story. His Juliet doesn’t quite match him, unfortunately. Her love isn’t fully believable and, discarding the naivety of the character in favour of anger, she comes across as untenably mature. Niall Ransome is a hearty, grounded Mercutio and Esther Shanson’s direct address is quite good, as is her multi-rolling – though her Lady Capulet is the strongest of her four parts. The whole cast run, leap and wrestle constantly, keeping the energy and stakes high.
Director Alex Pearson insists on an explosive energy that cannily suits the impulsive, teen love affair within two duelling families. She sets the play within a refugee camp which, whilst the tents ringing the pool of water preserving the theatre’s remains are a pleasing aesthetic, doesn’t otherwise indicate it’s not a festival or a campground. Had the programme notes not stated it’s set in a refugee camp, I may not have guessed. There’s a mix of British accents, all but one actor is white, and the text is as written barring unnecessary concessions for gender swaps, so the only signpost of the specific location is the set.
Pearson does make some great choices, though. Mecutio’s undiluted venom towards Romeo as he dies is surprising, but grounded in believability. The sexual tension between Mercutio and Romeo is titilating and fun, and her female-led, often cross gendered casting is certainly commendable and provides another perspective on the characters, particularly the parental Friar Laurence. Pearson faces the challenges of the space head on, using the whole site as his stage with confidence.
Also executed well are the fights, choreographed by Dan Burman. The nastiness of knives adds to the visceral, impetuous energy that keeps the actors pelting around the space. It’s great to see a fringe theatre production use a proper fight director rather than the director try to fudge the choreography themselves.
Even though this recontextualisation doesn’t come across, the strong performances, unrelenting energy and intimacy provided by the venue make this a really rather good version. It’s accessible, easy to follow, and frames the eternal story of the star-crossed lovers and all of their tragic flaws excellently.
Romeo and Juliet runs through 10 December.
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