Romeo and Juliet @ Greenwich Playhouse, London

cast list
Christopher Gutmann
Annette Westwood
Lara Parmiani
Chris Gee
Clair Amias
Susannah Coster
Robert Donnelly
David Laughton
Tony Waddham
Gordon Cowell
John Dorney

directed by
Linnie Reedman

As if the star-crossed lovers didn’t have enough to contend with already. Honest Hands production of Romeo and Juliet drops the feuding families into the aftermath of Mussolini’s Race Law a decree which forbids the union of Jews and Italians and has our heroes labouring against the horrors of ingrained social prejudice.

Thematically speaking, the analogy is sound. As Richard Dawkins is at pains to stress, the God one follows like the name on ones birth certificate is a quirk of circumstance, something often imposed from outside. It is a distinction worth exploring, dramatically, given the contemporary backdrop of Holy war and so-called honour killing.

But there remains the problem of the text. Shakespeare’s play is too tightly written to comfortably accommodate this new burden, and any director wanting to enforce such a radical re-reading will have to make some startling changes.

As the audience are seated, they are handed a piece of paper with the fascist maxim me ne frego: I don’t give a damn; and so, in amongst annexes and appendages, a masterpiece is crowded-out.

It is the additions, more than the omissions, that become most contentious. Songs, shoehorned awkwardly into position, break up what otherwise threatens to be a compelling delivery. These always seem to come at the most engrossing moments. We are slowly, meticulously drawn in, lulled into a daydream, and are awoken with a start.

Similarly, there is little to place the action temporally. The posters and programmes scream Mussolini! but these aside, only the odd salute and black shirt are in any way indicative of context. The lines are delivered straight, and Romeo indeed, the set is classically dressed. Reminders of time and place are untimely and incongruous.

Theres magic between the cracks however. Of particular note are Wadham’s Friar Lawrence, Dorney’s Tybalt and Coster’s Nurse; Gee is impressive as Capulet and Donnelly injects a refreshing swagger into Mercutio. Evans score, too, is memorable, if at times oddly misplaced; in the crypt, for example, a cheeky arpeggio threatens the sorrow as it matures.

I was a little unnerved by this productions presentation of Romeo. Short of expecting the audience to make a physiognomical judgment which would surely offend the high concept, if nothing else there is nothing to mark he or his family out as Jewish. Reedman drops the pro- and epilogues in order to make the families grievance seem less specific, but this isnt really enough. Doing so actually serves to reduce the extent of the characters folly those responsible for motivating their hatred lie far away, it doesn’t come wholly from within. This actually undermines the tragedy.

Messing with the bard has always been taboo, but there is nothing wrong with irreverence and iconoclasm if it serves a purpose. What new understanding can the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet shed on the problem of institutional racism? Not much, Im afraid to say, beyond the commonplace and the obvious.

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