Review by Daz Gale
Two theatre powerhouses, both alike in creating incredible shows, in fair Islington where we lay our scene as Rebecca Frecknall returns to the Almeida Theatre following the sensational success of her A Streetcar Named Desire adaptation. With the Almeida also having a stunning track record following West End transfers for both Streetcar and Patriots and Rebecca still riding waves from her unstoppable production of Cabaret, they have both brought the big guns out for this new collaboration, tackling one of the most famous stories of all time – Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Would it be a hat trick of hits for both or would this production prove a premature demise and end in tragedy?
Everybody knows the story of Romeo and Juliet, I assume? Just to cover all bases, it tells the tragic story of two star crossed lovers from feuding families whose whirlwind romance comes at a price… and a lot of death. Premiering in 1597, very shortly before Les Miserables began its West End run, it has been adapted more times than anyone can imagine through every medium possible. TV, Film, Dance, Musical. You name it, it’s been done. Unlike a recent West End show inspired by the classic story, however, this one doesn’t feature any songs by Britney Spears or the Backstreet Boys.
William Shakespeare’s story speaks for itself – there is nothing I can say about the writing that hasn’t been said before, and the fact the story and dialogue is so well known more than 400 years later is a testament to its weight. I can think of few shows that many can recite whole passages of text from, but Romeo and Juliet does just that. The issue is what can you do with Shakespeare’s original text to create something that doesn’t feel like it has been done a million times before. Also, without changing the text itself, is there a way to make it more accessible for those who don’t find Shakespeare plays the most enthralling personally? To that respect, this production does that very well, remaining true to the writing while bringing elements of the story up to date and using inspired production elements to complement this.
Rebecca Frecknalls direction is as inspired as you would come to expect from her. Dark and brooding, it is beautifully atmospheric with elements of movement adding a modern element to the production. While the text may be unchanged, Rebecca maximises everything else she is able to do to maximise the impact and bring something new to Romeo and Juliet with facial expressions, inflictions on the words and even pauses managing to add more subtext to the writing. Working fantastically with all production elements, this is Romeo and Juliet like you have never seen it before – satisfyingly familiar but dangerous and bold in its approach.
Chloe Lamfords set design takes a sparse and bare-bones Almeida stage but hides a couple of tricks in there – from the wall representing Verona that is present at the shows beginning to a beautiful touch involving candles as it reaches its climax. Dark and moody lighting designed by Lee Curran is deceptively simple in its subtlety with glorious moments involving lights gradually fading proving incredibly impactful. One of the greatest production elements in Romeo and Juliet is the sound design – from the repeated use of ‘Dance of the Knights’ (which will leave you expecting Lord Sugar to appear and set the cast a task before at least one of them is fired) to the quiet and eerie sound effects that penetrate throughout and a risky approach leaving several moments in complete silence. This is a production where every detail has been meticulously thought out with brave choices paying off effortlessly.
Taking on the task of playing the legendary lovers are Toheeb Jimoh as Romeo and Isis Hainsworth as Juliet. Both rise up to the challenge and excel, flawlessly encompassing the familiar elements of these two instantly recognisable characters while managing to put their own stamp on them. Toheeb Jimoh captivates with his confident portrayal of Romeo, commanding the stage and ensuring all eyes are on him as she slinks on and off. Isis Hainsworth gives a varied performance full of bigger and more intimate moments, but a fine affinity to the character of Juliet. Having to demonstrate a range of emotions through the characters journey, her jubilation turns into utter anguish – all played out to perfection in a phenomenal portrayal. Thankfully, the pair also have the most wonderful chemistry together, giving a sense of believability to these young lovers.
Other standouts among the consistently strong cast are Jack Riddiford who gives a comedically over the top performance as Mercutio, Jo McInnes in a memorable turn as Nurse and Jyuddah Jaymes who gives a fantastic turn as Tybalt. There are also stunning turns from both Jamie Ballard and Amanda Bright as Capulet and Lady Capulet – both get opportunities to showcase their true acting abilities with anger and emotion playing out to astonishing results.
Whether you are a die-hard Shakespeare fan or someone who would much rather go to a Max Martin musical, there is something for everyone in this refreshingly accessible adaptation. Keeping the essential elements of Romeo and Juliet while being unafraid to add in something new, the bold and brave choices have paid off excellently particularly when it comes to the use of movement in the action. Miraculously managing to pull off both contemporary and classic, this entire production is a triumph and yet another success for both Frecknall and the Almeida.
Romeo and Juliet plays at the Almeida Theatre until 29th July. Tickets from almeida.co.uk
Photos by Marc Brenner