This staging of Shakespeares oft performed tragic romance by Theatre of Memory, part of the 2008 Temple Festival, takes place in one of Londons finest Elizabethan buildings: Middle Temple Hall.
Hidden amidst the Temple courtyards and cloisters, it is not normally open to the general public. Inside, one finds a glorious, gated space, complete with an ornate, beamed wooden ceiling, stained glass windows, walls bedecked with heraldic shields, and, appropriately, a balcony. It is also a space with a long association with Shakespeare having hosted the first recorded performance of Twelfth Night in 1602.
From a performance perspective it presents certain challenges. A long narrow space with seats arranged on three sides, the closeness of the actors to the audience suggests the opportunity for intimacy, but the high-ceilinged grandeur of the place makes that difficult to achieve. There are also some issues with acoustics, the long room often resounds to the sound of feet slapping on wooden floors, and moments of subtlety and tenderness sometimes get a little lost. The layout works best for the numerous fight scenes, which are well-choreographed and performed, containing a genuine glimmer of violence.
The cast are strikingly attired in shades of white and cream. While the women wear the usual array of skirts and bodices – with Juliet sporting girlish ballet pumps the young mens costumes (as with all of them, created by the Olivier award winning Jenny Tiramani) are altogether more amusing, consisting of gold trainers, cockily-angled trilbies, lace-fronted shirts, gun-holsters and jackets with the name of their gang embroidered on the back. Baz Luhrmann would approve.
There are some strong performances amongst the large cast. Ann Mitchells nurse is a broad, no-nonsense scene-stealer, stalking around in stilettos and looking like shes not long escaped the set of something by Lynda La Plante. Will Kemps Mercutio exudes charisma, though the way he plays out his death scene, not railing against the feud that has finished him, but rather falling into a state of quiet denial and eventual acceptance, is an interesting choice that doesnt quite work as well as it might.
Of the leads, Juliet Rylance, whilst clearly a skilled actor, is somehow just a little too poised and womanly as the besotted young girl. As Romeo, Santiago Cabrera (Isaac from Heroes) seems to take a while to warm up, but his is a performance that grows on you and his desolation in the closing scenes is palpable.
While Tamara Harveys production is solid and accomplished, rarely dragging throughout its three hour running time, there is a sense of safety about it. Location is the key thing here, the real thrill provided by the glorious building and the chance to enter (and have a little nose about while youre at it) a space where the public are not usually allowed. It would take something truly spectacular to eclipse that and Harveys production, perhaps wisely, doesnt really try to.