ROMEO AND JULIET
Playhouse Theatre, London WC2
Opened 18 November, 2004
****

After Gale Edwards' laboured, self-conscious A Midsummer Night's Dream at Chichester this summer, I was not looking forward to a circus-based Shakespeare in a large conventional venue, still less one by an Icelandic company. But I had somehow managed to miss the excitement with which Vesturport's Romeo And Juliet was received a year ago at the Young Vic. (It returns now as part of the Vic's peripatetic season in exile whilst its own premises are being rebuilt.)

The central imagistic conceit of Gisli Örn Gardarsson's production is simple: love makes you feel as if you are flying. Consequently, all the most romantic passages are staged as aerial sequences. It's potentially crass, but in practice almost always beautiful. You see the very moment at which Juliet falls for Romeo at the ball, not just from the radiant look on her face, but from the way she offers him (dangling from a chandelier!) her hand to be hoisted off the ground with him. Later, he literally flies to her balcony on wires. After his sentence of banishment for killing Tybalt, the achingly poignant dialogue of the couple's only night together is cut entirely, replaced by a slow, sensuous and no less affecting pas de deux on an aerial hoop.

Gardarsson himself makes a vigorous Romeo, Nina Dögg Filippusdóttir a pert Juliet dressed in 1980s jailbait frou-frou. Her mother wears a corset and fishnets; her nurse is a great bearded fat man. The street fights between Montagues and Capulets are fought without weapons but with fire-breathing; Juliet's noble suitor Paris is a cheesy lounge singer who woos her with renditions of "All Of Me" and the like. Friar Laurence first appears sharing a spliff with the figure of Jesus on his cell's crucifix; when the lovers are wedded, Jesus acquires an acoustic guitar and works St Paul's words on love from Corthinians into an Act One Finale that is at once comically overblown and stubbornly touching. Proceedings are overseen by Peter (remember him? the Nurse's sidekick), played by Víkingur Kristjánnson as a ringmaster-cum-clown who has very little to do with Shakespeare's text at all.

This show has repeatedly been described as a production for teenagers, with the implication that it's somehow less complete than a grown-up one. On the contrary, it rediscovers the heart of the play the verve of most of its passage, and the crushing sorrow of its final phase in a way that most versions would give their eye-teeth for.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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