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Bell Shakespeare goes ostensibly old school in this lavish presentation of the star-crossed lovers’ tale. Anna Cordingley pulls out all stops with an impressive array of outfits for all the show’s characters. Harkening back to a more traditional dramatisation of the play, replete with sumptuous Elizabethan era costumes and a gilded arch adorning the stage, the design is reminiscent of a more customary era when sword duels in the street were entirely plausible. However, the ornate balcony decorating the stage appears slightly incongruous with the industrial-esque scaffolding populating the lower levels. If the scaffolding were simply for structural purposes, it could perhaps be excused as a necessary blight on the aesthetics. Unfortunately, the amount of time the actors spend ferreting in and around the steel bars gives undue attention to the peculiarity of the structure.
Despite the appearance of the 16th century world, the delivery of the dialogue reflects an almost contemporary tone and can seem slightly rushed at times without the archaic lilt of ye olde English speech. With the exceptions of the prologue and epilogue, the speech pattern refrains from booming monologues directed to the audience, wasting an opportunity for the play to make a momentous impact. The conversational style of the piece, incorporating various gestures for Shakespeare’s iconic innuendo, projects the focus internally onto the stage, rather than letting the language linger yonder outwards.
The cast is fresh-faced and energetic, particularly a Melissa McCarthy-channelling Michelle Doake as the nurse and the respectively humorous and austere Cramer Cain in his multiple roles as Samson, Lord Montague and Friar John. Kelly Paterniti builds upon her Shakespearean repertoire with the lead role of Juliet, giving the character a fierce tilt in her reprisals of the Nurse, despite her diminutive frame. First time Bell Shakespearean, Alex Williams plays Romeo adequately but is unconvincing as the tragic beau, enrapt with grief. Justin Stewart Cotta makes his stage presence felt as the domineering Lord Capulet, effortlessly transforming from doting dad to enraged patriarch in the face of his daughter’s defiance.
As much of the drama takes place at the floor level with the actors alternating between standing and sitting on the low step breaking up the stage, it can be difficult to see a lot of the action unless you have a particularly good seat. Most of the conversations are had with the actors sitting on the step, which seems pretty incredulous considering wealthy Veronese were unlikely to have spent much time lolling around on the floor. A particularly awkward moment occurs near the end of the show at the time of Juliet’s death. With the floor of the stage acting as her deathbed and up to four other actors crowding around her body, the actors are obscured by each other given the limited depth of space. When the Friar eerily appears hovering above the scene, perched upon the scaffolding, he manifests as a strange apparition. Another odd moment is when the scene shifts from the Apothecary’s shop to the tomb where Tybalt lies and the actor playing both removes his cloak in full view of the audience to change character. The use of the stalls as an extension of the stage could also have been enhanced with more effective lighting. As the performers disappear into the audience, at times with the very fetching illuminated boxes, to enact some scenes, the audience is left puzzled as to where the drama is coming from and deprived from seeing the expressions of the characters.
Bell Shakespeare is renowned for its interpretations of the bard’s classic works. While its not entirely unwelcome for the troupe to engage in a more traditional piece from time to time, the latest offering feels a little too formulaic without the spontaneity and energy which usually typifies the company’s productions. Those aspects of the show that do deviate from a conservative rendition of the play run the danger of seeming contrived. Peter Evans’ Romeo and Juliet is a solid production which ticks the boxes but fails to foster any real emotional engagement.
Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5
Bell Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Peter Evans
Designer: Anna Cordingley
Lighting Designer: Benjamin Cisterne
Composer & Sound Designer: Kelly Ryall
Fight & Movement Director: Nigel Poulton
Voice Coach: Jess Chambers
Cast: Cramer Cain, Justin Stewart Cotta, Michelle Doake, Michael Gupta, Angie Milliken, Kelly Paterniti, Hazem Shammas, Tom Stokes, Damien Strouthos, Jacob Warner and Alex Williams
1 April – 9 April