Romeo and Juliet

Verona is anything but fair in this dark and challenging reimagining of the tale of two young lovers.

The star-crossed pair are there but little else remains in a version of Romeo and Juliet which is very much Matthew Bourne’s and not at all Shakespeare’s.

At a compact 90 minutes (plus slightly jarring interval) much of the Bard’s story has been jettisoned with the warring families, love rival Paris, the Prince, Mantua, and the Apothecary all excised from the action.

Instead we find ourselves confined in some form of mental health institution for the young, where Juliet is already ensconced and Romeo is soon cast away by his uncaring parents.

Romeo and Juliet
Juliet (Cordelia Braithwaite) and Tybalt (Dan Wright)

Their romance blossoms in this unlikely setting – aided by their Cuckoo’s Nest inspired fellow inmates – through a series of wonderful duets from principals Cordelia Braithwaite and Paris Fitzpatrick.

Bourne has always been skilled at seductive shapes and selecting performers who act as much as dance. There are none of the rictus smiles and fixed stares of classic ballet here: these two lovers have eyes (and lips) only for each other. They sensuously combine, with one delicious passage seeing them inverted on the floor but mouths locked and rolling across the stage. When they finally break and stand panting, gazing longingly at each other, it feels intensely real.

The corps have plenty of chance to get physical too, with the ball scene starting as a formal party but descending into a frenzied orgy when the guards aren’t looking; there are skirts hitched up and no lack of writhing. Mercutio (Danny Collins) has a same-gender hook up that becomes the spark for his dispute with Tybalt (Dan Wright), triggering the inevitable descent from simmering unease to bloody tragedy.

As that darkness descended I swear there was a hiss and movement straight from Bourne’s muscular Swan Lake as the inmates formed a brutal mob, with the rapidly following conclusion just as bloody and shocking as that now iconic production’s.

The plot is distinct and different from the traditional play, but it has a power of its own. There is a question of how far you can travel from the original and honestly claim the name – Bourne’s reworking makes West Side Story look like a by-the-book RSC production – but in its own right this is an immensely creative and affecting tale.

Romeo and Juliet

Lez Brotherston’s set is centred on a curved tiled wall, with twin prison grills on either side for boys and girls, and a raised walkway around the top that allows for a balcony scene of sorts. Beds wheel in and out and there is a brief bit of Baz Luhrmann sparkle when a glitter ball descends, but the emphasis is on stark simplicity.

Prokofiev’s score is rejigged with an emphasis on and reprises of Dance of the Knights, through a new orchestration by Terry Davies reduced down to 15 parts and performed live under Dan Jackson’s direction.

Each of the runs of Romeo and Juliet includes temporary corps members drawn from local dancers aged 16 to 19 (Joe Barbrook, Chandi Brading, Freya Brown, Isis Clunie, Amonik Melaco, Jack Richardson), and perhaps the greatest compliment is that you could only identify them on the curtain call – for the rest of the show they slotted seamlessly into the cast.

Romeo and Juliet is at Norwich Theatre Royal until Saturday, September 7. Cinema screenings take place across the country from October 22.

Macbeth

With Storm Gareth raging outside, there wasn’t much need for simulated wind and rain to open this oppressive and claustrophobic version of Macbeth, but still it came.

The Paper Cinema presented the Scottish play without words and without live actors – instead the abridged story was shown through Nicholas Rawling’s drawings, live animated by a quarter of puppeteers and backed by a live score.

As well as providing a full musical accompaniment – think Macbeth by Massive Attack, with the occasional Highland jig or prog rock outburst – Chris Reed and Francesca Simmons added sound effects the BBC Radiophonic would have been proud of: footsteps, creaking doors, even the slightly gruesome mopping up of the dead king’s blood.

The artistry and attention to detail here, from Rawling and fellow animators Teele Uustani and Catherine Rock, was breathtaking: handling hundreds of card backdrops and figures, combined and overlaid through multiple cameras, and projected on to a large screen.

Shakespeare’s poetry was missing, as was some of the plot to achieve a 70 minute run, but we still got cackling witches, ambitious Macbeth, the wronged Banquo, and the tragic Lady Macbeth. In short, enough story and definitely enough spectacle to stand independently of the Bard.

Some scenes seemed crowbarred in for the sake of a sound effect (a squeaky crown here, and a running messenger there) and Macbeth’s 60s-style hallucination jarred with the tone of the rest of the production, but given the meticulous craft of this show the creators were entitled to a little fun.

When Macbeth runs through the castle to slay Duncan, the portrayal is as dramatic as gripping as any production I’ve seen; the puppeteers as good as any actors at bringing the page to life.

Macbeth

Macbeth was one of the first plays I saw as a child, and apparently so enticed me that I nearly climbed inside the witches’ cauldron.

No such risk with this National Theatre production of the Scottish play, and not because I’ve become more decorous with age – but because there is no big tub of bubbling brew.

Instead, the weird sisters shimmy up poles to deliver their pronouncements and Rae Smith’s set gives us an abstract sweep of decking around which to unpack our imaginations, swinging about the stage to suggest hills and ramparts.

There’s always the risk that in seeking to reinvent such a well-known story that the affectations overtake the plot, but this bold production stays on just the right side of invention.

Rufus Norris’ direction keeps the play at the centre, even when surrounded by an inordinate amount of plastic sheeting.

Michael Nardone’s Macbeth is more entrancing as the latterly paranoid monarch than hardened fighter claiming the spoils.

Lady Macbeth is an equally split character, though Kirsty Besterman doesn’t quite inhabit either.

Joseph Brown jars as Malcolm; pitching him as a camp, sliver of a prince is successful on its own terms, but deeply at odds with the muscular tone of the rest of the production.

Ross Walton’s Macduff gives the fullest performance in his limited stage time, and Deka Walmsley impresses in a series of supporting roles, but particularly the porter – pretty much the only brief candle of respite in this dark and bloody play.

There are moments of delight in the movement – Lady Macbeth’s entrance down the sweeping ramp and through a rotating doorway is beautifully conceived – but also some howlers.

The fight scenes generally lack mettle, and Banquo’s despatch is almost comically delicate set next to the visceral goriness of the vividly enacted beheadings elsewhere.

Macbeth is a deceptively difficult play: its central characters are both brutally ruthless and innately insecure.

This product has elements of that too and like the witches’ words the difference between truth and lie can be difficult to discern.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Who would have thought Shakespeare could work so well in a broad Norfolk accent?

This Royal Shakespeare Company production of one of the Bard’s most performed comedies shakes things up a little by introducing local companies into each step of its touring production, and in Norwich’s case that means actors from The Common Lot and children from Sprowston High School.

It’s The Common Lot’s Owen Evans – well-known as part of the Nimmo Twins – that dominates the show as Bottom, transforming Elizabethan verse into chitter-running squit with an unabashed Norfolk accent.

He is matched in method, if not stage time, by Dan Fridd as Flute.

The Sprowston-staffed fairy train accompany the action perfectly across dialogue, music, and dance.

Compared to them, most of the RSC take a back seat, with Tom Piper’s stylish production design and Sam Kenyon’s music making more of an impact than the professional cast – with the exception of Lucy Ellinson as a classically exuberant Puck.

This is a brave concept and a sensory triumph, and thanks to the verve of the ‘amateur’ participants it zings through the complex webs of love and lust that make up the frenzied plot.

Whether it deserves the RSC’s subtitle of A Play For The Nation will rest heavily on the strength of other local contributors around the country, but it is a joyous play for Norfolk. 

Henry IV Part I

Kings are used to being centre stage but Shakespeare’s Henry IV never really gets that chance – and this RSC production of Part I of the Bard’s epic tale doesn’t upset that.

As is the trend Falstaff instead takes focus, on this occasion played by Anthony Sher. He takes the route of the charming old soak, at times so convincingly that his gargling marrs his words. This is a portly Falstaff that is meant to be liked; with a sack-filled rather than dark underbelly.

Alex Hassell is a dashing Prince Hal. He inhabits the dual role masterfully, slipping convincingly between the vice of Eastcheap and the valour of the battlefield.

As his rival Hotspur, Trevor White is unrelenting in his performance but Gregory Doran’s direction has him as impetuous and bratty rather than an (unflattering) mirror to Hal, wasting a key dynamic of the piece.

And the king? Jasper Britton is solid in the titular part, hinting at an undercurrent of uncertainty and guilt in his otherwise resolute actions to save his stolen crown.

This is a crowd-pleasing production that takes few risks: the audacity is in performing both – lengthy – parts of the tale back to back, and that is an impressive feat.