Bristol Old Vic / Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Opened 16 / 18 March, 2010
** / ***

Two households, both alike in dignity... or in refurbishment, at least. As the remodelled exterior of the RSC's main house in Stratford becomes visible over the site hoardings, Tom Morris at Bristol introduces work-in-progress modifications to the Old Vic, which improve seating (at last!) and sightlines and reinstate the old forestage. Both companies, too, unveiled new takes on Romeo and Juliet in the same week, each mixing old and new in divers ways.

"Old" is the keynote of the Bristol production: Morris and Sean O'Connor have adapted the play to set it among septuagenarians in a care home. Montague and Capulet are the state-funded and private wings respectively, Juliet (aged 79 rather than 13) is being forced into an arranged marriage not by her parents but by her daughter and the doctor in charge, and so on. Apart from a largely original prologue, virtually all the text is Shakespeare's, although it has been occasionally altered ("Death, not Romeo, take my maidenhead" would hardly be plausible here) and trimmed, especially the broad comedy scenes and everything that impedes momentum in the closing phase. This is the more welcome since it must be said that the pacing of some earlier scenes, well, lacks the frenzy of youthful passion.

At the RSC, director Rupert Goold, fêted (or, to some, notorious) for his radical re-imaginings of the likes of The Tempest and Macbeth, stages a surprisingly straight version of the play. The two titular characters are in modern dress whilst everyone else is in period garb, presumably to point up the tale's timelessness, but for the most part there is none of the extreme Gooldification we have come to expect. For the most part. Perversely, it is during the same final phase of Acts IV and V, just when introducing novelty hinders rather than helps the gathering dramatic impetus, that Goold flexes his muscles. The liturgical background score is replaced by brooding post-rock, yet Romeo's servant Balthasar sings many of his lines in a counter-tenor, and costuming shifts unambiguously to the contemporary. Alas, one single stroke of this process is so disastrously, unforgivably misjudged that it has cost the production a full star in my review rating. At the very moment of Juliet's suicide, a police siren whoops out. The tragic climax was thus, on press night at least, greeted with sniggers. As part of a more comprehensive, consciously provocative reinterpretation this might well be justifiable; here, it is a breathtaking misfire.

Michael Byrne's Romeo in Bristol is surprised and delighted to be experiencing real love again at such an age, and gives himself over to it more compellingly than Sam Troughton's energetic swain at Stratford. Neither Juliet comes entirely up to the mark of what is in some ways the most far-reaching and dramatically demanding emotional journey made by any female character in Shakespeare. Siân Phillips in Bristol is of course a commanding presence, but never suggested to me either the initial transports of rapture or the full heft of her transition through to fatalistic knowledge; Phillips' inherent poise comes over here as reserve. In Stratford Mariah Gale, often so good at playing younger than her years, also misses out on the youthful joy, instead focusing her early scenes on a more serious teenage intensity of feeling. Exuberance centres in both productions on Mercutio: Dudley Sutton in Bristol, complete with Zimmer frame, and bottle-blond Jonjo O'Neill in Stratford, whose extravagantly obscene mimes and musical outbursts earned him the only spontaneous round of applause at the performance I saw. Both productions are solid, interesting, honourable readings of the story... Or will be if Goold deals with that catastrophic instant.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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