ROMEO AND JULIET
Festival Theatre, Chichester
Opened 27 August, 2002

It's a superficially attractive idea, but even the alliteration sounds a warning note of excessive glibness: Muslim Montagues, Christian Capulets. Indhu Rubasingham's Chichester production of Romeo And Juliet relocates the play from Verona to early Ottoman Istanbul, turning the vendetta between the families into a communal feud.

But it turns out to be one of those cases where, having hit on a high-concept idea, a production then expends energy on it rather than on the core narrative and character portrayals, and in any case does not do enough to bring off the concept either. Yes, it adds an edge to the strife, and yes, the ecumenical tolerance of the historical Istanbul can explain the consequent tangles of belief... but it's a rationalisation rather than a clarification.

As we watch, it makes no sense for Muslim Romeo's mentor (whom he greets with an extra-textual "Salaam") to be a Franciscan friar, or for Capulet's Christian servant Peter to turn for help to turbaned youths without suspecting they may be of the Montague faction, or for the exiled Romeo to travel for convenience' sake to Mantua twenty miles from Verona, around a thousand as the crow flies from Istanbul and far beyond the limits of the Empire. These would be mere nitpicks if the central idea paid off sufficiently to render them unobtrusive, but it doesn't.

As an indicator of directorial misjudgement, consider the final moment of this staging. Everyone has left the Capulet family mausoleum except two young children (what were they doing there in the first place?); the Muslim boy moves towards the Christian girl, who spits at him and stamps out. It is potentially a keen moment pointing up how incomplete is the reconciliation we have just witnessed between the families. In fact, on the night I saw the show, the audience response was winsome "Ahhh"s at the kiddies followed by indulgent laughter at the spit: absolutely, diametrically the wrong closing note.

Lex Shrapnel is a callow Romeo, playing his lines vocally big without suggesting a heart to match; Emily Blunt begins as Juliet with promising ingenuousness, but modulates into shrillness as the tragedy advances. Paul Shelley strikes the right note as Capulet - not a tyrant, but a man simply unused to considering others. Una Stubbs works surprisingly well as the Nurse: her vivacity undercuts rather than adds to the character's garrulous jabbering, and it is entirely plausible that, at Capulet's ball where the lovers first meet, it should be she who leads the dancing.

Overall, though, Rubasingham's production has nothing to offer beyond a central notion which provides a handy symbol but creates more problems than it solves.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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