Romeo and Juliet
Lyric Theatre, until March 5
THERE are two schools of thought about Shakespeare. One, according to my talented actor brother-in-law Ruairi Conaghan, is 'Just do the words'. The other is 'Don't worry about what you do to the Bard – he can take it'.
Fast forward to the new production of Romeo and Juliet, written in the 1590s, put on by the Lyric Theatre under the very skilled Philip Crawford and not at all coincidentally on the GCSE syllabus.
They've gone for a very 'now' production, and initially it seemed to be about not two Veronese families, the Capulets and the Montagues, but about two fashion houses in 2023.
Happily they toned this idea down and the resulting production was on the whole successful. There were passages, especially those building up to Mercutio's death, that worked very well.
What, sadly, didn't come off so well was the premise – the sexiness and uncut desire of our main players, young Juliet (Emma Dougan) and her Romeo (Adam Gillian).
You need to feel they can't wait to tear each other's clothes off, to be honest. That is Shakespeare's premise, the raison d'etre of this tragedy. It's there in the language and some of it succeeded.
But maybe not overall and certainly not the most famous scene of all, the balcony scene. "Wherefore art thou Romeo," she says in turmoil. He has clearly revealed his passion to us in the audience – "Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight? For I ne'er saw true beauty till this night..." – yet somehow the yearning didn't quite communicate. It should be pop star poster on the wall stuff, excessively romantic.
It didn't help, maybe, that the last Romeo and Juliet I saw, when at university, was the RSC production, again modern but in '80s mode with Sean Bean, Niamh Cusack and a superb fizzing Michael Kitchen as Mercutio. Plus a red Ferrari, because director Michael Bogdanov wanted to go over the top. And over the top is where we need to head.
I have a notion that William Shakespeare's great tragedies are exercises in madness, here the sheer lunacy of first love. Compare the nature of mature love provided by Antony and Cleopatra and there's a different, but related template here.
What is added in is the complicated family situation in this play, ie the Capulet versus Montague dynasties. You have to wonder whether this drama has ever been set here, in Northern Ireland. Could be interesting...
As it is, the parents whip up arranged liaisons hoping to shore up their interests, acting politically. I liked Rosie McClelland's Lady Capulet, brittle and hard as her high heels, yet her initial lukewarm reaction to her daughter's supposed death was strange.
The Nurse, Laura Hughes, was great. Fussy even in maybe an 80s or 70s suit and what looked like designer trainers. Her remonstrations and affectionate chat to Juliet were lovely. And the Friar, a key plot device, was wonderful thanks to Ray Sesay. So too superbly dynamic Mercutio (Thomas Finnegan).
It doesn't end well. But oddly, partly thanks to a brilliantly constructed southern European set with nice church window, it ended properly. They died well (better than they'd loved), we – or some of us rose to our feet – and theatre has done its job.