Romeo and Juliet
Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, in rep until 27 August
Rupert Goold’s new staging of Romeo and Juliet will rocket you into a state of renewed excitement with the play. He returns to the RSC for the first time since conjuring Patrick Stewart as a magus of the frozen north in The Tempest (2006). Ever inventive as a directorial travel agent, Goold now transports the star-crossed lovers from the land where the lemon trees blossom into a Stygian underworld, illuminated by flickering flames, spurts of steam and sudden pyrotechnic eruptions. Why, this is hell, nor are the lovers out of it.
Goold summons up that sense of dangerous antagonisms both feudal and religious that would have been in everyone’s minds when the play was first given in the London of the mid-1590s. The resurgence of Catholicism and its Inquisition was a very real fear. You could argue that this is straining at a marginal significance, but Goold’s infusion of a scary religious dimension into the fabric of the tragedy is gloriously theatrical.
The story that Goold tells is at once up to date and romantically fabulous. His Romeo and Juliet are hoodie kids of today suddenly enveloped in a menacing Jacobethan milieu. Sam Troughton’s Romeo is a student on vacation showing himself around the Capulets’ capacious family tomb with the help of an audio guide (and a smuggled digital camera). Suddenly the ghosts begin to dance, fire and smoke spurt from the floor and the tourist finds himself caught up in a rerun of a violent affray in which Benvolio is about to be roasted at the stake.
It’s a very old trick to do a play as the dream of one of its characters, but Goold handles it brilliantly, indulging both the spectacular possibilities of the play (an enthrallingly macabre masquerade at the Capulets) and its timeless modernity. The audience was deservedly teeming with the young. This was their story. Their rapt attention, and the buzz in the foyer, suggested that if they’d been there under exam duress they’d be going home set for top marks. As well as the unsentimental credibility of Troughton’s Romeo and Mariah Gale’s Juliet, they plainly enjoyed the Fawltyesque spectacle of her dysfunctional parents. Goold’s instinct for unscripted comedy was abundantly evident in the clatter of weaponry upon the floor in response to the Prince’s command to disarm, and in the outrageously explicit sexual clowning of Jonjo O’Neill’s superb Mercutio. Tomboyish and forthrightly feminine, defiant and distraughtly tearful in the apprehensions of her ‘ill-divining’ soul, Gale conveys a wonderful range of totally credible emotions, always real, always passionately poetic.
You might be tempted to raise an eyebrow at the sight of Romeo and Juliet on their balcony, iconically displayed in golden rays as though in a Catholic monstrance, and at the unconvincing levity in the closing scenes of Forbes Masson’s otherwise excellent Friar Laurence. But this is a terrific rendition of the play. It inhabits and expands into the Courtyard like no other production yet seen there.