Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, London NW1
Opened 9 June, 2008

“It was the nightingale.” – “It was the lark.” – More likely than either, it was the 2020 from Malaga on its approach to Heathrow. One is used to extraneous noise vying with the theatricals in Regent’s Park of a summer evening, but this year’s opening production seems more prone than most. Perhaps this is because director Timothy Sheader (the Open Air Theatre’s new artistic supremo) creates several other instances of drowned-out dialogue himself, not least with Latin musical jollity during the Capulet ball where the two lovers first set eyes on each other. (At more sombre moments, of which there are many, composer David Shrubsole favours Michael Nyman pastiches.) It may also be indicative of a production which tries to hold our attention through gimmicks rather than letting the play and the actors take the strain.
Robert Innes Hopkins’ La Dolce Vita-style couture looks a treat, but Sheader feels compelled to show it off by having the entire company adopt tableaux at various points, which does nothing for the drama. Nor do Liam Steel’s movement sequences, beginning with an explanatory prelude to a play which already has a spoken prologue. The latter is divided phrase by phrase among the entire company, and on the line “Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean” they all thrust out their mitts in a gesture that makes the heart plummet. Thankfully, things are seldom that overdone, although Oscar Pearce plays Mercutio with a combination of camp and viciousness that makes the character look like a self-hating homosexual, and Richard Cotton’s Prince is much given to ineffectual yelling.
Laura Donnelly’s Juliet is lively of face and voice; her Received Pronunciation accent cannot stifle her Irish singsong cadences, which is to the good. In contrast, Nicholas Shaw’s Romeo largely fails to find any music in his lines, and thus makes a poor show as an impassioned lover. Old stagers Claire Benedict as the Nurse and Richard O’Callaghan (who has played Friar Laurence in more productions than most of us have ever seen) show the way, but to little result. Sheader intercuts scenes tellingly when Romeo and Juliet learn separately of his banishment, but then alters the whole tone of the ending by having Juliet revive before Romeo dies. If this is intended to make their anguish more keen, it has the opposite effect.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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