Romeo And Juliet @ Open Air Theatre, London

cast list
Laura Donnelly
Nicholas Shaw
Claire Benedict
Jennifer Bryden
Richard Cotton
Andy Cryer
Matthew Hart
Ben Joiner
Annette McLaughlin
Richard O’Callaghan
Oscar Pearce
Dale Superville
Marcello Walton
David Whitworth
Leon Williams
Tim Woodward
Ben Ingles
Neet Mohan
Harry Myers
Annalisa Rossi

directed by
Timothy Sheader
Visiting the Open Air Theatre for the first time to see Romeo and Juliet, I was so enchanted by the setting I sank into my seat and merrily prepared to have my heart broken.

The stage lies under a vast horse-chestnut obscuring the last of the sun, and a copper beech grows towards the famous balcony. It’s all perfectly charming, and there are quantities of fairy-lights about the place, and the lawns are as green and soft as lawns in novels, and it’s altogether to be recommended.

Yet within roughly five minutes of the play opening I was suppressing a fit of the giggles. For reasons that will puzzle me to the tomb the director begins the production with a slow-motion tableau in which all the inhabitants of Verona express through the medium of what I will call (for want of a better term) ‘dance’ the tragedy we were shortly to enjoy. There was a lot of expressive arm-waving, and in the middle of it all Romeo and Juliet, in appropriate linens, made mournful eyes at each other. Meanwhile, the opening chorus was flung line by line between the cast members, and was almost inaudible. This opening signified the production’s chief fault, which is that it isn’t directed so much as choreographed. When in the second half the director loosens his grip, and the highly-coloured set-pieces subside, the play becomes notably more engrossing.

As Juliet, Laura Donnelly is all she should be: pretty as a punnet of peaches, sweetly revelling in her first love. She manages to deliver those too-familiar lines with a sense of freshness and wonder, as if she really were fondly exasperated at her lover’s inconvenient family. Romeo, played by Nicholas Shaw, demonstrated his youthful joie de vivre by leaping nimbly about the stage on dainty little feet. He was the very epitome of a beautiful young man wildly in love, and I wanted to kick him very hard on the shins. Fatally, he appeared to lose interest in the final scene, so that what ought to be a line of tender despair as he cradles Juliet’s body (‘Eyes look your last! Arms take your last embrace!’) was so off-hand I’m only surprised he didn’t die with a shrug.

The remainder of the cast are largely competent, though particular plaudits should go to Claire Benedict as the Nurse. In a welcome departure from the pillow-bosomed horrors that call to mind Blackadder’s Nursie, she’s glamorous and wonderfully arch, with expert comic timing (‘She’s Russell Brand!’ muttered my companion with his customary acuity), and, for all her silliness, passionately loyal to her charge. The production’s most moving scene was not, as I’d hoped, that triple ‘suicide’ on Juliet’s bier, but the Nurse’s discovery of her body.

As Benvolio, Leon Williams carries a satchel, so there can be no doubt he’s a studious and thoughtful boy – and I believed everything he said. Friar Lawrence is played with melancholy humour by Richard O’Callaghan, and Tim Woodward as Capulet veered convincingly between love and helpless rage.

The production’s fifties setting is attractive, and allows for some marvellous circle-skirts and brothel-creepers, but naturally I half-expected Juliet to launch into I Feel Pretty. For all the faults of direction, there were one or two imaginative and moving touches: Juliet will not let go of the bedsheets where she first lay down with Romeo, cradling them through the final scenes, and hiding in them her poison-bottle; and despite the highly stylised ‘fights’ in the opening scenes when the most damning murder comes it’s swift and brutal, and impeccably timed.

A brief word on the play: though I’ve never much cared for it, it’s a splendid demonstration of how tender, how bawdy, how violent and wise Shakespeare can be. Romeo’s brief speech on the utter unreasonableness of love, which has a nasty habit of striking when it’s least expected and from the most inappropriate quarters, is as true a thing as has ever been said. It’s a flawed production, but in an enchanting setting, and you ought not to pass up the chance to remind yourself what it is to feel that – bright smoke, cold fire, sick health – if only as a warning to steer well clear of Cupid’s arrow.

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