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Review: The Globe’s Production of Romeo and Juliet (***)

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The Globe’s production of Romeo and Juliet is available:
– For streaming from The Globe Player (£4 / ~$6)
– For streaming from DigitalTheatre.com  (£3 / ~£4.50)-
– As a DVD from Amazon UK (£16.79) Amazon USA ($21.19)
Prices are indicative – check the actual price at the Vendors’ links above.

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Our Bottom Line:

Do we, finally, have a heart-rending, nineteenth century, production of ‘Romeo and Juliet? No, nor do we have a ground-breaking contemporary one – that is still reserved for Rupert Goold’s 2010 show – but we do have it all on stage at the Globe, wholesale, where the sword and the kiss, the indecent and the virtuous, the adolescent and the middle-aged – are played with purpose and energy, for and against each other. You cannot say, having watched this, that it is familiar and dull.

Our Review (***)

This is an exuberant, peppy, production of the romantic tragedy. So, there’s the heart of it: how to marry heady action with plunging, ‘death-mark’d love’? The answer has made for great cinema: Zeffirelli in 1968 and Luhrmann in 1996, which will colour anyone’s imagination – but here is the Globe’s vivid, all-in, production of 2009. ‘Two hours’ traffic’ on our stage’ is the Prologue’s estimate. It is actually two hours and fifty two minutes (2.52.27) on screen, which tells you something about Shakespeare’s PR and/or his genius.

There is live, original music from five musicians and four actors sing in close harmony. The accompanying songs do, of course, follow this story of (doomed) young love and – by way of plot summary – it is worth noting the title lyrics here: (1) in jaunty anticipation of the balcony scene and before the Prologue we hear, ‘Oh bid the lady say “Yes”/ Come to the window now or I shall die’; (2) below Juliet’s window, ‘like secrets let us lie /Locked in love and its sweetness; (3) at the dawn of Romeo’s banishment, ‘Come away sweet love /The golden morning breaks; (4) ‘I bring you sleep’ (with spooky bells), when Juliet takes the good friar’s remedy; (5) a reprise of ‘Come away sweet love’ in the Capulet tomb before (6) a rapid drum signals a high stepping, hand clapping dance to end the play – the same number that is enjoyed at the Capulet party. There is a bonus feature too. The musicians’ scene, so often cut, is here. Hired for the wedding of Juliet to Paris they find themselves out of one job but reckon on some mournful employment shortly. Knave Peter wants ‘some merry dump’ [a dance tune] to lift his spirits. He is refused but not after some joshing and daft antics. It is rare to hear the names of Simon Catling, Hugh Rebeck, and James Soundpost but it fits the inclusive quality of this production.

A thematic tempo is apparent. Director Dominic Dromgoole wants the exhilaration and dreams of youth to drive the action. The counter, cautionary, measure provided by parents and the church is the undertone. The first is repressive, defensive; the second caring and sympathetic. The textually evident ‘message’ is that Montague and Capulet Seniors are to blame for what happens. Without their feuding enmity there is no angry cause, no quarrel on the streets on Verona, no killing in these hot days when the ‘mad blood [is] stirring’. The pity of it is that they are too old to fight and so – for the most part – the memorable stage work is left to the irresponsible young men; sharp, witty, and lewd as you should expect them to be. Here, by honorary default, I must include Penny Layden’s broken-toothed, Yorkshire nurse.

The sword play is terrific and the small screen does it rushing justice. It comes on quickly in the first scene when Tybalt – resplendent in family crimson – has his sword nonchalantly over his shoulder before going at Benvolio. In the later, deadly, scenes there is no doubting that Fight Director Malcolm Ranson is out to savage any idea that stage fighting cannot look real. We get an on-stage rehearsal as Mercutio goes through the fencing moves in his mocking ‘Prince of Cats’ speech. It is extremely well done by Philip Cumbus and is all the more effective when he actually faces Tybalt; notwithstanding the evident element of sham fury, as if neither would inflict any serious hurt. That all changes when Romeo and Tybalt clash and the meaning of ‘to be run through’ is horribly obvious.

But blades and daggers and boys’ talk are not enough, even though we get such choice analogies as ‘poor Romeo .. already dead: stabb’d with a white wench’s black eye’. What of the two principals and their ‘true [lasting] love’ – or should that be ‘violent [passing] delight’? My impression is that Dromgoole assigns the first to Juliet and the second to Romeo, which is novel and must be unintentional. Maybe, quite simply, it is down to Ellie Kendrick’s age. Juliet is almost fourteen. Kendrick is eighteen, which as professional Juliets go in this day and age is young. She has blushing, incredulous innocence on her side. She is half embarrassed, half excited. Her dark eyes absorb the wonder of what is happening to her (which may be contrasted with the knowing, flashing eyes of her mother) and her voice often cracks high with feeling. This transfers well to the soliloquy of her ‘dismal scene’ when with the clear eyed certainty of a child recalling a nightmare she sees the horror of the mangled Tybalt.  Romeo (the ridiculously good-looking Adetomiwa Edun, 25) is easily, believably, smitten but at this point I always want to see the ‘too fair, too wise’ Rosaline who resists him. No such luck. Anyway, Romeo is possessed anew and throws himself into the part of lover. Literally. This skittish gentleman is rarely still and – a perverse property of the camera shot – seems to take only one step forward before jolting backwards, almost as if Cupid has dropped the bow and taken up a semi-automatic. It is a performance of zest doubled by verve, entirely in keeping with the play’s hectic momentum but it is a little unnerving to watch.

Steadier, set-square, is Capulet (Ian Redford), who can do genial host and mean and angry father with distinction; whilst the Friar – the Maori actor Rawiri Paratene – is a calm blessing in the open disguise of a Franciscan. Paratene’s command of the verse in the last scene when he explains what has gone so horribly wrong and why is audition teaching material if ever I heard it.

Six cowled monks lift Juliet – dead asleep – from her bedroom and they move in solemn procession through the Yard. Otherwise a modern audience is left undisturbed by a production that respects Elizabethan conventions. The apothecary does shoot up through the trap, downstage centre, which is fun, and may well (let’s be broad-minded) have occurred in 1595. The first level of the tiring house is used as the church yard, with the Capulet tomb below it, and that makes sense too, although there have been questions asked of the metal railings on the top ‘deck’.

As Romeo takes his crowbar to the door of the vault do we, finally, have a heart-rending, nineteenth century, production of ‘Romeo and Juliet? No, nor do we have a ground-breaking contemporary one – that is still reserved for Rupert Goold’s 2010 show – but we do have it all on stage at the Globe, wholesale, where the sword and the kiss, the indecent and the virtuous, the adolescent and the middle-aged – are played with purpose and energy, for and against each other. You cannot say, having watched this, that it is familiar and dull.

Alan Brown,
Reviewer,
Players-Shakespeare.com

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