The RSC’s Romeo and Juliet at the Barbican is lacking the ‘heady passion that we expect from fair Verona’

Anthony Walker-Cook reviews the RSC’s newly-transferred production of Romeo and Juliet, taking issue with the tone and design of the production.

What clichés springs to mind when you think of passion and romance? Sunsets, long walks, longer beaches, champagne and chocolate? Certainly.Romeo and Juliet, as the definitive tale of star-cross’d lovers? Possibly. A rusting grey metal frame around a theatre with a revolving metal box? Probably not. In a production that has a tone and design closer to the spectral hauntings of Halloween than the lascivious Valentine’s Day, the RSC’s production of Romeo and Juliet at the Barbican lacks the heady passion that we expect from fair Verona.

Director Erica Whyman has clearly tried to bring out the darker elements of this tragi-comic play. The members of the Capulet and Montague families are dressed in modern streetwear. For contemporary London audiences, it feels that not a day goes by without the plague of knife-crime on our streets claiming another victim. In modern dress, this production does attest to the wasted potential of the young people that die during the narrative (though the choreography is noticeably dire for almost every fight). What emerges is a world cold and unforgiving, and wherein no love can ever exist. Add to this Piper’s metallic set design and what emerges is the hostile futility of the titular couple’s situation. As Capulet, Michael Hodgson best epitomises this world: cruel and threatening, there is the sense that he is trying to maintain an order that may imminently be gone.

Karen Fishwick and Bally Gill as Romeo and Juliet. Photograph: Topher McGrillis

How then is a story of love to emerge from this world? In short, not easily. Whyman’s production does manage to expand the theme of impossible love out of the immediate familial sphere to a much larger stage. There is the suggestion that, simply, we no longer live in a world capable of love. As Juliet and Romeo, Karen Fishwick and Bally Gill’s challenge therefore feels huge and, at points, beyond them. Both provide fine performances, yet the tone of this production provides indomitable, rendering their love sterile. They meet at a Capulet rave, but, much like any rave, amidst the pulsating beats, thrusting partygoers and dangling fairy lights, it feels impossible that this is where a relationship worth dying for is to be found.

Why watch a love story, or even a rom-com, if you know the main couple will not get together? That is the main problem with this production. Charlotte Josephine’s wild Mercutio is a complete delight, as is Ishia Bennison’s Nurse. For all their light-hearted moments, however, when Romeo and Juliet lie on top of a bed after their first (and last) night together it is impossible not to feel acutely aware of what is to come. Issues of pacing mean that these are star-cross’d lovers indeed, but this production feels more like a cloudy night. Sadly, this production of Romeo and Juliet is one that I may be tempted to bite my thumb at.

2.5/5

Romeo and Juliet is playing at the Barbican until the 19thJanuary, 2019.

Feature photograph: Topher McGrillis


Anthony Walker-Cook is a PhD candidate at UCL and is the Theatre editor for London Student. His interests include theatre adaptation, early modern drama, classical myths made modern and all things eighteenth century. For more information please contact: anthony.walker-cook.17@ucl.ac.uk

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