KING LEAR / ROMEO AND JULIET
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Opened 10 March, 2011
*** / ***

The actual viewing experience in the redesigned Royal Shakespeare Theatre was never going to be much of a surprise. We had known almost from the beginning that the new RST would be based upon the Courtyard Theatre, its interim replacement: the same thrust stage, slightly larger capacity (at 1040 seats), improved acoustics, but basically a “fair copy” of the Courtyard. It is the touches around the rest of the building that add a signature. I don’t mean the panoramic viewing tower for tourists (separate admission charge) or the swish new bars and restaurants, but the way in which the building’s history has been visibly preserved.
    
As you walk towards the RST through the foyer space that now unites it and the Swan Theatre, you pass a plaque marking the site of the original control desk and a pair of huge doors to the former wing space. A curved curtain wall to the new auditorium runs inside the old, bare brick back wall. In a delightfully surrealistic touch, halfway up the back wall of the third floor restaurant are three theatre seats: they are in the position of the furthest seats from the stage in the old configuration, a maximum distance which has now almost been halved from 27 to 15 metres. Future generations will be spared the impression I had on my first school visit to the RST, of being seated in a neighbouring county to the action onstage.
    
The biggest disappointment, frankly, is that the new space should be unveiled for two productions which have already been reviewed twice, in the Courtyard a year or so ago and then at London’s Roundhouse in December. I still fail to grasp why both David Farr’s King Lear and Rupert Goold’s Romeo And Juliet adopt a mix-and-match historical attitude to costuming, but in general their excesses have been curbed. Goold’s production, in particular, seems now more of a piece in terms of the director’s characteristic novelties, rather than proceeding from a relatively straight start to an increasingly jazzed-up climax just as jazzing-up becomes ever more counter-productive to the play. Mariah Gale’s Juliet makes a journey not from childhood to maturity, but from youthful innocence to a still-youthful surfeit of experience. Jonjo O’Neill’s irrepressibly obscene Mercutio remains the highlight, as in Lear the strongest performance is Darrell D’Silva’s bluff but unostentatious Kent. The real baptism will come with the first new production in the space, RSC artistic director Michael Boyd’s Macbeth in late April.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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