Shakespeare’s world-renowned tale of star crossed lovers is given a modish twist by director Polina Kalinina in this 1960s influenced production. The cast is young, hip and jaw-droppingly attractive which, let’s face it, doesn’t hurt when you’re being asked to suspend any prior knowledge of the play’s ending and root for the love blossoming between the two young enemies. The eye-candy casting is smart beyond endearing the actors to the audience however; all that blossoms must die, and the hedonistic path these beauties tread seems to render the deathly pallor of their demise in all the more cold a light.
Romeo and Juliet, played by Paapa Essiedu and Daisy Whalley respectively, are believable in their devotion to one another. Whalley especially is faultless and captures the essence of a fourteen year old’s innocence with wide eyed credulity and flush-cheeked modesty. The absolute star of the show however, has to be Oliver Hoare’s Mercutio. Hoare captures the spirit of careless, arrogant youth tearing through days of endless summer beautifully, right up until his last choking words – ‘a plague on both your houses.’ The ripple of disaster lurking beneath the surface becomes a full blown tidal wave as Mercutio and Tybalt fall in quick succession.
The minimalistic staging accentuates the sombre mood and downfall of the warring Montagues and Capulets in the latter half of the play. The raised circular platform at the centre of the intimate stage is present throughout the entire production. While early on it is presented as innocently as a child’s roundabout, its omnipresence takes on a darker light as the play progresses – the wheel seems sinisterly suggestive of the irresistible pull of fate rolling ever on, up and down, as the youngsters consummate their ill-fated love in the bed that will become their dual bier.
Overall, Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory’s latest production is a resounding success. The roles are well cast, with convincing performances all round, with the exception perhaps of Tybalt and Juliet’s would be suitor Paris. There are laugh out loud moments and moments to make you gasp in horror. Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the play, besides the romance, is the palpable physicality of the performance; as street brawls rage the actors come within inches of crashing into the front row of the audience in the round. This is Shakespeare as it should be – a little bit rough, very ready and completely unapologetic.