Romeo and Juliet at the Open Air Theatre is nimble and slick, so don’t expect ‘Two households, both alike in dignity’. No scenes are to be leisurely laid in fair Verona. At 110 minutes running time (with no interval), it moves purposefully and swiftly to its tragic conclusion, streamlining and snipping any meandering diversions that might seek to move us away from the high stakes at hand. It’s well edited, in the sense that it gives us the bare story with little ornamentation. Not only does this taut frame do well to keep its outdoor audience honed in on the action, but it also conveys that frustrated, steely impatience that’s part of young love: the yearning that burns when the need for the other slows time to a maddening lag.
Director Kimberley Sykes focuses on the pivotal events of the play, weighing them with significance and emblazoning them with fiery symbolism. Such unambiguous boldness is reflected in Naomi Dawson’s design — a scaffolded stage with two sandbags on a scale in the centre — and in the costumes — sleek whites worn by the Capulets and denim, punkish blacks by the Montagues. And while the imagery is imposing, a particular feat in an outdoor setting (with much credit to Giles Thomas’s crisp sound design), it lacks richness. While there is a restlessness associated with youthful intimacy, there is too a desire to sit in timeless stillness and inspect and eke out every hue, every taste. But here there’s neither the time to sit nor the spectrum of colour to evoke that heady, peachy love.
The absence of that type of love affects the play’s high stakes. It’s the lustful desire to reach and relish this state that makes sense of these characters’ rash decisions. Even more so, the production’s tight pacing requires instantaneously believable and complex chemistry between characters to undergird the action. The adults, generally, fare well. Andrew French’s Lord Capulet, who appears affable and convivial only to swing rapidly in rage, smartly conveys the ways relationships can be governed by their context, public or private. Hamilton Dyer’s Friar is gifted in the more meditative moments, which really resonate in this otherwise expeditious production.
Isabel Adomakoh Young’s Juliet is animated, passionate, mischievous, and she solidly cements her deep bond with Emma Cunniffe’s ebullient Nurse and her distaste for Richard Leeming’s awkward Paris. But there’s a lack of passion between Adomakoh Young and Joel MacCormack’s Romeo, and so much of the intensity in their interactions fizzles. MacCormack seems a distant acquantaince to Cavan Clark’s Mercutio, and while Clark and Michelle Fox as Tybalt are both embodied and driven by rancour, their characters’ deaths do not cast much of a shadow of grief over their respective families. It’s therefore odd that Sykes chooses to resuscitate the slewn characters in the play, who upon their death ascend and stride into the audience, left to be onlookers of the doomed romance. It’s striking, but it’s not clear what the intention is behind the choice: whether to raise questions about the needlessness of loss in the play, or to demonstrate how these deaths later impact the living.
It’s an unfortunate matter of timing that ultimately seals the fate of Romeo and Juliet. And perhaps that is the issue with this production, too. In an effort to keep our attention to the matter at hand, to move us efficiently and effectively forward, something is, tragically, lost.