Sunday, 29 May 2016

Two households both alike in dignity

Plays at the Garrick: Meera Syal, Lily James, Richard Madden, Sophie McShera, Derek Jacobi

La dolce vita to Funeral sangue Mafia

Rob Ashford and Kenneth Branagh have fashioned a swift-paced Romeo and Juliet at the Garrick Theatre in London. Though the production begins in a holiday piazza with full skirts, sharp suits, sunglasses and the easy consumption of espresso and grappa in the Verona sunshine, by the time the play descends into the claustrophobic chambers of bedroom and tomb we know the Mafiosi on stage need serious family therapy. Michael Rouse’s incandescent Capulet, a bullying neurotic Mafia boss, shockingly straddles his daughter’s shuddering body as he threatens to give her to “my friend Paris.”  The overall atmosphere moves from chaotic street to silent tomb, from La Dolce Vita to Funeral sangue Mafia (The sweet life to Mafia Blood Funeral.)

The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love

Both Lily James and Richard Madden have good theatrical credentials (Lily, opposite, as Desdemona in Othello at Sheffield Crucible and Richard in Malorie Blackman's Noughts and Crosses at the Royal Shakespeare Company.) They also have star pulling-power following Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones and Cinderella and they are credible as the “pair of star-cross’d lovers.” Richard Madden’s Romeo is an Andrex-puppy “dish-clout” (as the Nurse calls him) whose hormones are firmly located in his well-pressed trousers. He needs a job to distract him but is happy to mooch about and sponge off the elderly Mercutio. Being drawn casually into a fatal relationship is entirely in keeping with this Romeo’s laissez-faire approach to living until his inner male rage explodes on “I am Fortune’s fool” as he suddenly and devastatingly realises the mess he has made of his short callow life.
Outstretched hands mirror the lovers' journey

 It is easy to understand why Romeo falls for this Juliet. Lily James squirms with awkwardness when listening to advice, stamps her foot when trying to exert herself and allows us to witness her intimacy and vulnerability when she anticipates Romeo’s arrival on their nuptial night. She cartwheels, she swigs from a bottle of bubbly, she is giddy with excitement at the thought of escaping the clutches of her oppressive parents. This Juliet becomes horribly determined but equally fearful as she makes her dreadful decisions with Friar Laurence (first) and, finally, all alone when she has been abandoned by her protectors.

Susan and she were of an age

Marisa Berenson’s damaged Lady Capulet haunts the play as if recovering from an unspeakable addiction (from her thuggish husband, maybe?) It is clear that Lily James’s Juliet has been fed more than milk by Meera Syal’s feisty, funny, flirty Nurse; their joie de vivre and reckless outbursts have rubbed off on each other. But the Nurse in this production has taken the surrogate mother role to unhealthy extremes and in the early scenes eggs on Juliet in the direction of her deadly decisions. The joyful bantering between the Nurse and Juliet gives way to Juliet’s shock when the Nurse advises her to marry Tom Hanson's openhearted Paris. Meera Syal’s grief in the tomb when confronted with her own culpability is believably affecting. As the play ended there was a sense that the Capulet parents (and Montague senior) were mourning for the sake of onlookers but that the Nurse, in her own private grief, had lost her own baby Susan all over again. A very different performance to Meera's Beatrice in Iqbal Khan's 2012 production of Much Ado About Nothing at the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Branagh, Jacobi, Madden, Colgrave Hirst, Syal, James

These hot days is the mad blood stirring

Samuel Valentine plays an unusually young Friar Laurence but his ginger youthfulness makes complete sense of the attempts he makes to unite the two families through the “alliance” of Romeo and Juliet; an older, wiser priest might not have been so reckless. An emphatic Benvolio by Jack Colgrave Hirst also fits well into the softly macho world that contrasts with the lurking Mafiosi represented by the older generation. Once a military cad, now a waspish dandy, Derek Jacobi creates a totally fresh (for me) Mercutio. He is like an Italian Maurice Chevalier, picking up the cheques for his young male entourage, who, it seems to me, remind him of the young soldiers he knew and lost – and still dreams of – on battlefields of yore. Jacobi’s Mercutio comes from a pre-Mafia generation who had sacrificed their youthful dreams “cutting foreign throats” and surviving “breaches, ambuscadoes, Spanish blades.” Mercutio delivers the Queen Mab set-piece as if it were a post-traumatic stress dream. The shocking death of an older, frailer Mercutio seems more accidental than it often does, a turn-of-a-sixpence moment on a tragically boiling hot day. The logic of what follows therefore made more sense to me, with each death worth more as the tragedy unfolds; sometimes Mercutio’s death is the climax of a production but here, in Jacobi’s experienced portrayal, it becomes the unexpected first step in an inevitable narrative. 

The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head

The overall production values are slick and professional with sensitive underscoring by Patrick Doyle and a strong supporting cast (a leonine Tybalt by Ansu Kabia and an appealingly bonkers Peter by Kathryn Wilder.) Like the design of The Winter’s Tale (which I blogged about last November) the designs here are beautiful with Howard Hudson’s lighting transforming Christopher Oram’s lightly-monumental pillars and abstract walls in flexible environments, convincingly indoor and outdoor, both claustrophobic and expansive.

What light through yonder window breaks?

Romeo and Juliet will no doubt be staged again and again in years to come but this version was an inventively-directed and compelling production in a atmospherically-designed world. The cast gave plenty of fresh line readings with moving and attractive performances.
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.
Past Romeos clockwise: Leonardo di Caprio, Paapa Essiedu, Leonard Whiting, Freddy Fox, Douglas Booth, Richard Beymer (as Tony in West Side Story), Patrick Ryecart and Leslie Howard
Past Juliets clockwise: Claire Danes, Daisy Whalley, Olivia Hussey, Morfydd Clark, Hailee Steinfeld, Natalie Wood (as Maria in West Side Story), Rebecca Saire and Norma Shearer