By Fran Gillespie/Doha
“The two hours’ traffic of our stage” adapted to accommodate a school day, The Globe Education’s touring production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet premiered on Tuesday evening, with the first of four performances at Katara Cultural Village.
The smouldering wreck of a car centre stage precedes the opening of the play, an indication of the violence to come. This is a wow, hit-you-in-the-face production, guaranteed to make even the most reluctant young student of Shakespeare sit up wide-eyed and open-mouthed. The timeless themes are as familiar to audiences now as they were in the playwright’s time – adolescent, adrenaline-fuelled displays of temperament, parental disapproval, rivalry and irrational hatred. The gang knife- fights are a disturbing reminder of the violence on city streets in the UK today, when hardly a week goes by without some teenager being stabbed to death.
The classic film West Side Story took the Montague/Capulet blood feud onto the streets of downtown New York in the ‘50s, and this production begins in the same vein with a gang of street-wise cool kids erupting noisily onto the stage, swaggering and posturing, showing off their cycling tricks and fooling around. A brilliant, deceptively simple set designed by Hannah Clark allows for plenty of athletic clambering around on several levels, including leaping on and off the stage, scuttling up and down ladders and scrambling to and from the lofty balcony of the Capulet town house.
Will Featherstone is a youthful Romeo, on cloud nine at one moment and in the depths of tearful despair the next, impulsively throwing over his former love Rosaline without a backward glance as soon as he sees Juliet at a ball at her parents’ house, expecting everyone to rally round and help him in the typical self-centred way of teenagers.
Jade Anouka, who lists her ‘playing age’ as 24 but doesn’t look a day over the 14 that is Juliet’s age in the play, knows just what it’s like to try and get kids involved with Shakespeare – she says that at school she found the bard “just boring, I didn’t really get it.” She puts everything she’s got into her portrayal of a young girl totally moonstruck by the passionate adoration of a handsome boy, willing to fall in with his plans for them to elope and marry, and even agreeing, in her desperation when their plans are thwarted, to go along with Friar Lawrence’s dangerous suggestion that she drugs herself to simulate death.
Juliet’s garrulous nurse, with her adoration of her ‘lamb’ and her endless anecdotes and reminiscences, is all that one expects from this marvellously comic character, although her screeching voice sometimes makes her words inaudible. A memorable performance was by Mercutio – a full cast list was not provided by The Globe, even online, so I can’t name the actors – played as a garrulous, loud-mouthed bullyboy rather than as the tormented, deceptively sparkling firework of a character in other productions. Inevitably a fast-paced abbreviated production like this misses out on the subtle pauses and innuendoes of Shakespeare’s script – as when Romeo interrupts Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech with “Thou talk’st of nothing” and Mercutio, after a pause, replies, “True, I talk of dreams.” This was lost to pace, as was the heart-rending moment when Juliet imagines waking in her living tomb surrounded by the dead, including the festering body of her lately murdered cousin Tybalt.
Juliet’s mother Lady Capulet is played as a rather cool, unemotional character, not involved with her daughter’s preoccupations and too insensitive to see what is happening right under her nose. The terrifiying, irrational and violent rage of Juliet’s father when she demurs over his plans to quickly marry her off, somehow doesn’t quite come across. Interestingly, he is portrayed as a vulgar, nouveau-riche, self-made man rather than as the aristocratic head of a household.
This is a tale of two teenagers heading towards inevitable disaster, with the adults who could have prevented it failing them on all sides. In the final scenes the car wreck becomes first Juliet’s bed, then her tomb, and the tragedy of her and Romeo’s deaths, after Friar Lawrence’s best-laid plans go horribly awry, is movingly portrayed.
A real star of this show is the choreographer, Georgina Lamb. Her terrifyingly realistic fight scenes, where characters repeatedly pile into each other at violent speed, must have taken many weeks of rehearsal by the cast, as must the fast-paced dancing and the other scenes requiring the characters to rush on and off stage. The production cannot fail to involve its young audience, and as an introduction to a Shakespeare tragedy it is an outstanding success.