Romeo and Juliet – Review – West Yorkshire Playhouse
By Sandra Callard, March 2017
The West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds was opened in 1990 by Dame Diana Rigg, and has grown steadily in stature since, gaining a reputation for innovative productions and the inspired use of strong local talent.
I always attend the venue with a curious feeling that I may see something profoundly unsettling, or alternatively, something profoundly wonderful. The Playhouse’s latest production of Romeo and Juliet is most definitely in the latter category. Director Amy Leach has pulled off one of the most astounding versions of Shakespeare’s glorious and tragic love story that I have ever seen.
Initially, a sinking feeling surfaces as hordes of scruffy teenagers dressed like modern yobs crowd the stage, shouting, fighting, strutting and challenging. The words of the Bard fall on the ears in unrestrained Yorkshire accents. The stage setting is stark, simply two concrete platforms of different heights. The fear surfaces; will this be just another ultra-modern version, as far away from the beauty of the original as you can get.
How wrong can one be? The words are clear, the meaning is obvious, and suddenly it all seems so right and so real. Shakespeare’s 16th century words now sound applicable to our time, and thoroughly consummate in their universal appeal. The die is cast, and you are drawn into the evergreen story as if for the first time.
The feuding families of the Montagues and the Capulets are appalling in their unabated hatred of each other. Led by the fathers of their respective clans they foster their contempt of each other to a violent and loathsome degree.
The first meeting of the Montague son, Romeo, and the Capulet daughter, Juliet, is as modern and funny as any teenage pairing, both taking time out from the chaos of the never-ending taunting of their families. A very young Tessa Parr plays Juliet with remarkable insight. Her words and actions sear her emotions on to you. She is incredibly adept with her facial expressions, and leaves you in no doubt as to her emotions. Dan Parr plays Romeo beautifully, leaving you to wonder what the duo’s real life relationship is, so sympathetically do they bond.
The casting is not without its surprises, as Romeo’s friend, Mercutio, is played by a girl (Elexi Walker). She possesses a flair and violence that belies her gender. She plays an absolute blinder, and is magnificent in the role as she exudes strength, fearlessness and a wonderful comic side that mocks the weaknesses in others.
The well-meaning but essentially blame-worthy Friar Laurence, here termed the Reverend Laurence, is again played by a female, Olwen May, in a very competent and beautifully spoken way, as she wrestles with the tragic results of her machinations.
“Intensify the action”
There are almost universally good performances here. Natalie Anderson brings to dazzling life the role of Lady Capulet. The nurse, here a bossy but loving woman, amusingly played by Susan Cookson, is a great character. Lawrence Walker movingly plays Benvolio, Romeo’s loyal friend. Tachia Newall, in a solid and robust performance, brings to life the threatening and turbulent Tybalt.
The whole production palpably gathers momentum as it moves towards its tragic and inescapable zenith. No matter how many times you see this play, the uselessness and avoid-ability of the deaths remains shocking. The genuine remorse of the two fathers who have lost their children does nothing to abate this feeling.
The thirty or so youngsters who make up the supporters of the two families are an energetic blend. They noisily hold the stage as a moving background to the events in the foreground. They are not a hindrance, but rather a chorus to highlight and intensify the action. Their contribution to the play is immense.
This is a wonderful, heart-wrenching production. It is astonishing in the accomplishments of the younger members of the cast, and appreciative of the skill of the established actors who give such polish and realism to this glorious play.