Romeo and Juliet-Cardiff Open Air Theatre Festival

Romeo and Juliet is one of Shakespeare’s best known plays, and particularly for those of us who were teenagers in the 90s a certain film version is more than etched into our minds as well. Personally speaking as well this was, by pure accident rather than design, the third Romeo and Juliet I’d seen in a month. 
All images Keith Stanbury  
Within minutes any fears of this being a ‘by the numbers’ version of the play were quickly dispelled. Co-directors Mark Modzelwski and Jack Paterson have created an innovative approach to the play. It’s a dark, production that brings out the more disturbing streaks often glossed over for the easier romantic elements of the play. ‘Easy’ also isn’t something you would use to describe the production-the audience is asked to work as well by challenging them to engage with an alternative look at the text. 

The elements are all there, the warring families, the glamourous moments, the fights, and of course the lovers. But it’s a world that might not be exactly what the audience expects. Quickly breaking down expectations and flipping them on their head with some seamless ensemble work in the introductory moments, it becomes clear that elements of the story may not be as we expect or as they seem. 

Although the leading roles are uniformly excellent, it is this ensemble work which is the highlight of the production. From the choreographed gang rivalry of the opening moments which brought to mind a kind of post-modernist reference to West Side Story’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, layered back into the original, to the constant presence and reactions of the ensemble which fleshed out the play and breathed new life into scenes that sometimes pass as filler. 
It’s clear the directors worked with the actors as a company, rather than focusing on just their leading parts, and everyone had a vital part to play in every scene. From the Nurse or Lord and Lady Capulet being unseen observers, to Balthasar becoming a mysterious sometimes seen, sometimes unseen figure in scenes all added to a sense of mystery and newness around this well-worn play. 

The mixing up of characters-and gender roles- was also a welcome addition. So with Tybalt becoming a woman (and a hell of a feisty one at that played by the talented Asha Cecil) and Benvolio becoming two people (Ben and Volio, Stephanie Smith and Edward Kettle) and the previously mentioned Balthasar played by an eerily hypnotic Carys McQueen who really lent emotional weight to the all-seeing role. Across the play the ensemble adds to the narrative, engaging with the story, enhancing the storytelling and bringing a new energy to the play. 
The principle roles really feed off this sense of a company and their performances are enhanced by it. Mikey Howe as a confident but likeable Romeo gives a contemporary feel and likeable air to Romeo. Often reduced to just his love-lorn laments Howe draws out the fun, young Romeo who seems like the kind of guys you’d want to be around, and yes quite probably fall in love with. Helen Randall is a gentle but engaging Juliet, again giving her young girl a real sense of personality- some lovely exchanges with the nurse and her parents bring out the other sides of her character. And together their chemistry is excellent, and gives a real sense of young love’s energy. 
The story may be well-worn and familiar but there is a frisson of new energy to this production. There is always a balance to be struck in staging Shakespeare, many audiences balk at the idea of innovation preferring the traditional route. And traditional often works, and certainly has its time and place, but there is something to be said for taking the leap into the unknown. In staging this different approach to the classics it feels like Everyman is respecting the intelligence of its audiences, challenging them to come along with the fantastic company and try something new. This darker twist with its many additions and spins on the ‘original’ might not be what everyone is expecting, or to everyone’s taste, but certainly nobody can fault the directors and the company for daring to give them something new.
And what about me? My three runs of Romeo and Juliet were bookended by two very innovative productions. The middle one was the current London production directed by Kenneth Brannagh. And as much fun as that was, I’d much rather see this (or anything else come to that) by Modzelewski and Paterson.

Romeo and Juliet runs until 30th Jule

Published by Emily Garside

Academic, journalist and playwright. My PhD was on theatrical responses to the AIDS epidemic, and I continue to write on Queer theatrical history. Professional nerd of all things theatre.

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