Romeo and Juliet, always tragic and often opulent, comes to the wonderfully atmospheric Rose Theatre in an inhouse, "poor theatre" production - and the result is spell-binding, reducing the Shakespeare to pure text and powerful performances by a very strong cast. For a powerful production that analyses the play in all of its beautiful detail, look no further.
This story of star-crossed lovers probably needs little introducing: amongst Shakespeare's canon of well-known plays, Romeo and Juliet may be the most classic of the love stories, with two lovers fighting against their families for their illicit romance. However, where most productions focus on the tragedy and pathos of the piece, the Rose Theatre's production is unafraid of the comedy as well.
Jerzy Grotowski's "poor theatre", a reaction to over-staged dramatic productions, asserts that pure performance lies with the actors - that you need nothing more than great performances to properly elucidate a dramatic text. At least, that's the simple version - like most theatre theory, it's a little more complicated than how it sounds on the surface. In this production, the "poor theatre" message seems to have been taken fully to heart, whether for artistic, practical or financial reasons - as is easy to imagine, "poor theatre" does rather play into the hands of smaller, underfunded theatre companies!
Regardless of the reasoning, the result (in this case) is extraordinary. Using little more than minor props, mostly inventive uses of scarfs and the occasional pendant or hat, a cast of 5 play every part in this tragedy, swapping between roles with comparative ease. This has been directed with aplomb by Martin Parr - it adds immediacy and urgency to language that can be (and often is) played rather torpidly, with the performers leaping between characters and scenes at a remarkable pace while keeping the play comprehensible. This vibrant energy suits the youthful characters and their often rash decisions to a tee - it's the best version of Romeo and Juliet I've seen in a very long time.
This kind of theatre lives and dies with its performers, and the entire cast here do a really splendid job. Jennifer Higham plays a wonderfully juvenile Juliet and a rougish Benvolio excellently, and Dan Winter's predominant Romeo is clear and exciting - both have a strong grasp of the text and an easy and friendly flow. Despite a clear age gap, they could easily be the 14-year-old lovers, and Higham's Benvolio is just the right side of masculine without being laddish. Jonathan Broadbent, Liz Crowther and Isabel Pollen also have a great time as the smattering of support characters, with Pollen and Crowther in particular doing well jumping between in a number of minor characters, often within the context of the same scene.
As well as the performances themselves, the cast's ease and comfort with their audience is a delight to behold - often perching on a handy knee or delivering a line directly to an audience member, allowing Shakespeare's sometimes awkward monologues and one-liners out to the audience to gain a wonderful immediacy. They aren't even afraid of asking the audience to partake - including my favourite moment in the play, where Romeo asked an audience member to play a tiny music box while he had his first dance with Juliet, adding twee, real music to the only scene that needed any additional sound effects. And the only lighting effects were torches, occasionally used to show up distant actors on the other side of the Rose's archaelogical dig/indoor pond (if you haven't been, it must be seen to be believed).
Obviously, if you like your theatre a little more song-and-dance (and there's nothing wrong with that; I love a little theatre magic), this won't be for you - but anyone with a love of the text and excellent performance could do a lot worse. Considering the waves coming from the Rose Theatre and some exciting upcoming events, this may be the perfect time to acquaint yourself with Shakespeare's other home on the South Bank.