Location: Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Avenue, New York, NY
Website: Official Lincoln Center Festival site
Starring: Dyfan Dwyfor, Mariah Gale, Jonjo O’Neill, Forbes Masson, Noma Dumezweni, Joseph Arkley
My Review: The Royal Shakespeare Company is probably on its way back home across the pond as I type this, but for a few brief weeks this summer they took up residence here in New York at the Park Avenue Armory, performing five of Shakespeare’s classic plays in repertory. As much as I would have liked to have seen all five, my bank account said I was allowed only one, so I went with the classical classic of all classics that ever classiced, Romeo and Juliet.
If I need to summarize Romeo and Juliet, then you either never took a high school English course, or you failed it miserably. In brief, Romeo and Juliet are teenagers from feuding families who meet at a party and instantly fall in love. Unfortunately, the fact that their families hate each other creates some difficulties in their relationship. So with the aid of a drama-loving nurse and a priest hoping to create peace between the families, they secretly marry, only to have Romeo kill Juliet’s cousin mere hours after their wedding, getting him banished from town. The priest hatches a plan that will allow Juliet to fake her death, making it possible for her to escape with Romeo, but when his message of this plan to Romeo goes astray, Romeo hears only that Juliet is dead. As only a lovesick teen would, he goes to her tomb and kills himself. Juliet awakens from her false death, sees Romeo dead, and kills herself. The fighting families mourn the loss of their children and vow to put their petty rivalry to rest. If you’ve ever seen a movie, watched a TV show, or read a book, you know this story already.
This instant familiarity could easily be the undoing of any production of Romeo and Juliet. It’s a 400-year old tale that’s been told over and over again in every available medium, so is it even possible to present it in a new and exciting way? If the RSC production is any indication, yes, it is (and adding fire could help).
|Park Avenue Armory|
Knowing that bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better, the RSC went minimalist with their production, with a cobblestone thrust stage acting as everything from an outdoor market square, to the inside of a castle, to an underground tomb. Rather then relying on fancy theatrics, they allowed the performances to be the attention-grabbers; a decision that worked brilliantly. Both Romeo (Dyfan Dwyfor) and Juliet (Mariah Gale) shone, and even managed to capture an element of the story that is so often forgotten: Romeo and Juliet are teenagers.
The actors themselves were obviously past their teen years, but they still managed to capture all the wonderful horribleness that is being a teen. Dressed in modern clothes while the rest of the cast was in Elizabethan garb already set them apart, making it clear that they were not of the same world as everyone else. Romeo mooned about, slouching in a hoodie, embodying all the reckless emotions that come with falling in love and experiencing adult feelings for the first time. Juliet was prone to bratty fits of temper and foot-stomping when she didn’t get her way, but wasn’t afraid to show her softer side when the time called for it. Some other reviewers complained about the use of these typical teen antics, but I found them to be a refreshing way to make it clear that Romeo and Juliet is ultimately a story about children.
As is so often the case with this play, Mercutio was a scene-stealer (played by Jonjo O’Neill). He only appeared in a handful of scenes, but reveled in playing the bawdy clown of the show, though his devotion to his best friend Romeo was clear so that his untimely death (400-year old spoiler?) was still tragic. Juliet’s nurse (Noma Dumezweni) was another highlight from the supporting cast, as she begins as Juliet’s confidant but eventually shows her duplicity when she sides with Juliet’s parents on forcing a marriage with the man of their choice. Dumezweni’s nurse was never cruel, but simply a woman who enjoyed the drama of a secret relationship, until she saw how it would negatively affect her employers and was forced to choose a side.
I saw one of the final performances of the RSC, and unfortunately, the production was plagued by mishaps. An unidentified beeping noise in the middle of the first act brought the play to a stop while it was fixed. Even more disruptive, at the dramatic peak of the second act when Romeo enters Juliet’s tomb, a torch bearing actual fire refused to be extinguished, so a stagehand had to appear to carry it offstage. But despite these issues, the cast remained professional, yet playful enough to wink at the audience and let us know that, yes, this kind of stuff can happen even during Shakespeare.
Bottom Line: Given the quality of the production they offered and the reception they received from a New York audience, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s first visit here was a success. Being able to breathe new life into Romeo and Juliet is a task not many could do, but the RSC made it look effortless. I hope they return again soon with some new perspective on other old favorites.