Salisbury Playhouse has taken something of a shine to Jasper Britton; in the past year he has been seen in its main house in Rope, in the studio in The End Of The Affair (and subsequently in London, at the Bridewell), and now returns to the main stage as the star-cross'd young Montague in Jonathan Church's production of Romeo And Juliet.
One of the walls of Ruari Murchison's set wobbles perilously when Britton scales it, drawing sniggers from the largely GCSE set-text-devouring audience (a welcome boost to the Playhouse's start-of-year box office); the same wall is later canted in at a crazy angle to form part of the forbidding, misty Capulet family tomb. Nick Beadle's lighting design is dim though seldom murky, the chiaroscuro effects during the ball at which the lovers first meet being particularly effective. Jonathan Howell's fights are efficient, but never fast or smooth enough to seem other than choreographed.
Church has assembled some excellent supporting players: Josephine Tewson might have spent whole swathes of her career in training for the role of Juliet's nurse, and Dudley Sutton's Friar Laurence shows an agonised heart of his own in his attempts to make all these odds even. As Mercutio, Jason Morrell seems in a constant equipoise between drunkenness and hangover. (I did wonder, though, why he so insistently munched during the madcap antics before his fatal duel on a plant which the Friar in the previous scene had assured us, "Being tasted, stays all senses with the heart"... a subconscious death wish soon fulfilled, perhaps?)
Jayne Ashbourne has taken a route as Juliet which leaves her often seeming rather too mature in the first half but provides her with emotional depth as the tragedy thickens in the later acts; the contrast is most visible between the first balcony scene, where she exudes an air of assurance and control at odds with the idea of Juliet as transported by unlooked-for passion, and Romeo's dawn leave-taking, also on the balcony, where the first notes of her subsequent anguish are already sounding. Britton's Romeo, too, is a little older than the character's years, but no less fine a piece of work for all that. Indeed, my only cavil is at his end-stop-heavy style of speaking verse in the over-emphatic fashion advocated by Peter Hall, which hobbles the sense of the lines at least as often as it liberates.
Church's production is not a masterpiece nor a revelation, but you can see many worse each year of the same play. In the words of an entirely unrelated television commercial: "It does exactly what it says on the tin."
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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