It must be quite difficult for a company to breathe new life into such an eminent play as Romeo and Juliet, as audiences are so familiar with the 'pair of star-crossed lovers'.
The young teen protagonists fall in love yet their warring families, the Capulets and Montagues, impede their progress. It is their tragic deaths, and not the power of their love, that overturns the feud. Audiences never seem to tire of it. Nevertheless, is it possible to look afresh at this hoary old warhorse?
Based on this frenzied production by Reading Between the Lines, it appears so. They have certainly achieved an element of originality by shifting the action to a dystopian 2023 where, as Director Hal Chambers says in the programme youth inhabits a world where ‘everyday is sex, dancing, fighting, posturing and narcotics.’ To achieve this, he has bolstered the drama with electrifying physicality emphasizing the animalistic tribal rivalry staining Verona’s streets.
Sadly however, it is, to take Romeo out of context, ‘too rough, too rude, too boisterous’. Don’t get me wrong I do not mean that in any prurient way but refer to the constant and the harsh assault on the senses. The sound, composed by Benjamin Hudson, ‘one half of hip hop/noise duo Baconhead’, distracted from the lyrical splendour of the play, as did Lighting Designer Oliver Welsh’s barrage of strobe and laser.
However, on a more positive note, the cast played well as against the omnipresent spectre of death and the grungy urban set. The prologue had already defined the action and, we know that Romeo (Will Rastall) and Juliet (Emma Ballentine) cannot escape their fate. It concentrates the mind on the rather more satisfying aspects of the drama especially the more vibrant supporting roles. For example, the fine playing of Benedict Chambers’ bawdy Mercutio, belligerent Tybalt (Stephen Boyce), and Pearl Marsland’s garrulous Nurse each in their own way kept the drama from descending into maudlin romance.
Whether the decision to place the action in 2023 was the right one is not up for discussion here. Everyone will have his or her own opinion. Moreover, even though at times it rankled it did bring immediacy and topicality to the play. It will no doubt appeal to younger audiences, who I believe make up a good percentage of RBL’s supporters. If so, that’s a good thing for both the company and the future of professional theatre in Reading.
This review first appeared in Newbury Weekly News 26th September 2013