Romeo and Juliet – Lyric Theatre – Review

Romeo and Juliet – Lyric Theatre – Review
by Cathy Brown

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, Lyric Theatre Belfast
Dates: Sat 4 Feb—Sun 5 Mar 2023

It could be argued that Romeo and Juliet is the most famous play in the world. Over 400 years old, the story of these star-crossed lovers and their tale of woe has entered into the public consciousness like no other. How then do you keep it fresh for a contemporary audience?

This new production from the Lyric Theatre, Belfast has transposed the love story to the present day and Anne Bailie’s adaptation has cut the script by half. At best, this feels fitting for the rash momentum and precarious foundation on which the lovers build and intensify their relationship. However, on the flip side, it limits the story’s emotional appeal.

The production is set in contemporary Italy, where the Montagues and Capulets are now two rival fashion houses. This is a nice excuse for designer Gillian Lennox to kit the cast out in stylish ‘50s inspired outfits (a subtle nod to West Side Story) and an array of watches, handbags and bling, yet the theme never really goes deeper than that. Robin Peoples’ impressive set fills the Lyric stage – a striking recreation of a sun-dappled Italian piazza – with street side café tables at which the drama plays out. Ongoing background music, street noise and a large digital billboard distract throughout, but the set transforms smoothly into both Juliet’s bedchamber and her crypt.

The measure of the success of any Romeo and Juliet is the degree to which you believe in the title characters. Both Emma Dougan and Adam Gillian are an engaging presence in their own right but there is a lack of chemistry between them, which has a lot to do with the staging. The initial wooing scene is muddled by ongoing background noise and movement, undermining this vital moment, which is the basis for the rest of the play. Shakespeare’s subtler details and delicate wordplay are lost, meaning that the couple fail to develop a shared head of steam. The central balcony scene is played with Romeo’s back to the audience throughout, dulling the natural poetry of the text and resisting audience engagement.

The cast of 16 is well handled by director Philip Crawford, but the acting is uneven and at times uncertain in tone and delivery. The cutting of the script means that Mary Moulds, as strong as she is as Lady Montague, is given little to do, while Paris (Eugene Evans) has become less of a character and more of a plot device. Rosie McClelland, as Lady Capulet, adopting some of Lord Capulet’s words and traits, is a conflicted blend of steely aggression and maternal love. The standout performance comes from Thomas Finnegan as Mercutio who is a feisty highlight. He is charming, bawdy and impulsive and the stage is most alive when he is on it, as he subtly traverses the journey from boyish excitement to adult ruin. Laura Hughes also excels and is a warm and engaging presence as Juliet’s Nurse, finely balancing the comedy and the tragedy and bringing a believable emotion to her scenes with her young charge. Ray Sesay is a winning Friar Laurence, surefooted with Shakespeare’s verse.

This production presents a modern aesthetic mix that offers some entertaining elements and features well-choreographed fight scenes, but a lack of dramatic tension and emotional complexity means that the ‘violent delights’ and ‘violent ends’ of this most famous of plays never fully materialise.

Categories: Header, Theatre, Theatre Review

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