Theatre Romeo & Juliet, Liverpool Playhouse, Friday 25th October 2002.

Shakespeare only turns up in Liverpool once in a blue moon, and hardly ever in the larger theatres – so a lot was possibly riding on the success of this piece – can it work if something like this is on show for a whole month and attract a general audience (school groups being a given). Last night was the penultimate show and it was half empty, so the jury is still out. But were we impressed enough with what we saw in order to go and see something similar?

Romeo and Juliet is not as easy a nut to crack as it might first appear. The usual approach is to stick two reasonably attractive characters on stage, sit back and hope for magic. But things are a tad more difficult than that. Shakespeare barely gives enough time between the first meeting of the young lovers and the marriage proposal for any kind of realistic courtship so there has to be some creativity for us to care about the couple much past the reveal on ‘Blind Date’.

Josie Rourke’s production emphasized the time they do spend apart. The only times this couple touched each other were in the first meeting, the wedding, the consummation and the death scene. At all other times, they are very much apart, we visit upon their anguish separately. The height of the balcony (in the heavens by all accounts) led those of us in the stalls to crane our necks to see Juliet – underlining her distance from Romeo.

It’s in these scenes that the production really flew. Although at first we saw Shereen Ibrahim’s Juliet laughing madly without context -- she does anguish really, really well. The moments when she realize that all is lost and she won’t be seeing her new husband again were heartbreaking. Although she’s done some TV (‘Doctors’) it’s unbelievable that this is her first stage production – to throw this one out so close to the end of the run suggests a real talent. Christian Coulson’s Romeo projected maturity but caved when his girl became involved. This was a modern interpretation of the boy-man, hot in head and pure of heart.

This is an ensemble piece, and if I’ve a criticism, that sometimes slowed down the first part. I would have like more time seeing the title characters falling love, but here we have most of the scene emphasizing the gap between the Montagues and the Capulets. This did give rise to some spectacular moments – moped flying around the stage, the law of the piece Escalus firing a gunshot into the rafters to get everyone’s attention – but they seemed empty somehow – despite some excellent playing, especially from Joseph Alessi as Capulet, a brick wall of a man. And I do wonder why Friar Laurence is an Irishman again – no criticism of the actor, Robert Patterson, it’s just he’s been Irish in every production since the Luhrmann film and it would be nice to see something else.

The final scenes were magic, however. The discovery of the sleeping Juliet led to a Sondheimesque moment when Capulet, his Lady, Paris and the Nurse overlapped their protestations of woe shortening that scene considerably without losing the sense. Romeo’s banishment took place before a giant blank screen emphasizing his distance from the world of the play. A door unexpectedly opened in this to reveal the apocethery in a small chamber. Romeo carried Paris’ body through another door in the screen as it was pulled up to reveal the funeral chamber, without doors, Juliet’s body laying forlornly on a central slab (the fallen Tybalt from earlier in the play lying nearby). As the scene progressed various characters appeared from below the stage, almost magically into the space. This death scene is difficult to get wrong, but this was very, very good. Not many dry eyes in that small audience.

Nice accessible Shakespeare then, not trying to make a point about anything just entertaining the audience. Yes, the period was slightly unclear (the prohibition in New York, perhaps) but there isn’t anything worse than the production designer running riot and sinking the language – which here was well spoken and understandable. To use a footballing cliché then, slow first half with a cracking second half, a goal in injury time clinching victory.

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