Perennial favourite Romeo and Juliet is undoubtedly a great play, but it’s not always a good production. We all know the story – dumb rich kids making stupid choices – but for jaded modern audiences, it can be a struggle to care. Cynicism has encouraged a gimmicky approach in recent productions, with increasingly elaborate re-imaginings intended to re-engage audiences. Happily, in this production, the gimmicks are more reliable; excellent casting and intelligent, playful direction.
Richard Madden (Game of Thrones) and Lily James (Downton Abbey), look young and pretty in the titular roles, and this helps sell their amour fou, which they play to the border of incredulity but no further. Meera Syal grows into the part of the Nurse, always a plum comic role, but she is sometimes outshone by the gormless servant Peter, gender-switched here and played by exciting newcomer Kathryn Wilder.
There is no arguing, however, that this is anything less than a triumph for doyen of the Shakespearean stage Derek Jacobi; casting him as Mercutio is a stroke of genius. The role usually goes to a flashy young actor, affording the opportunity to flirt with the audience. Jacobi certainly does this, but he also does so much more. His all-singing, all-dancing performance steals from the greats – Kenneth Williams, Bugs Bunny, and not least his own storied career – it’s mercurial in every way, but the real pleasure for the audience is in seeing his devilish enjoyment.
The sets are minimal but clever; blasted, rectangular sandstone columns rise and fall in a sepulchral game of Tetris. The lighting is clever too, especially when the actors are using handheld torches onstage, and in the tableaux vivants that end each half. These call to mind the works of Caravaggio, whose passion and violence are mirrored in the play.
In yet another excellent decision, the costumes suggest a 1950s Italian setting, evoking The Godfather and La Dolce Vita. The machismo of the era suffuses the play, and makes for an especially toxic and powerful scene when Juliet’s father (Michael Rouse) asserts his authority over the women in his household.
This is quite simply the best Romeo and Juliet for some time.
The Garrick | ★★★★★