Reviews Manchester Published 21 September 2014

Romeo and Juliet

Victoria Baths ⋄ 10th September - 4th October 2014

But, y’know: pretty.

Andrew Haydon

Do you know about HOME yet? It’s basically a new theatre building currently under construction in Manchester. Apparently it’s the replacement for the Library Theatre, but with a new building, a new name, and a new artistic director. Imagine if, when the Hampstead Theatre moved, it’d changed its name to the (honest) Swiss Cottage Theatre and not been rubbish. That sort of thing. People who know stuff about it are dead excited about HOME. I don’t think their planned opening season has been announced yet, but the open secrets are definitely cause for cautious, putative celebration. Think: a northern equivalent of the Young Vic (at last). *And* the artistic director is German/Dutch Walter Meierjohann. Exactly. “German” (like Sebastian Nübling!) and “Dutch” (Like Ivo van Hove!). So, y’know, no pressure.

I should start by being scrupulously honest and say that I saw the Saturday matinee of R&J (because travel). Playing at the Victoria Baths, which have large vaulted frosted glass ceilings (think a smaller scale King’s Cross), matinees take place under the full glare of whatever little daylight Manchester deigns to offer. But even yesterday’s thunderous cloud cover is nothing like  ight. As a result, I think I probably saw the “production without atmosphere” version. I bet it looks smashing in the dark with its purpose-designed lighting. When I’ve finished writing, I’ll have a look at the production photos, just to torture myself. Still, we’re all pretty used to Shakespeare in daylight, right? The Globe, Regent’s Park, all that outdoor touring stuff. So… I guess what we might be less used to is seeing arthouse/”German” productions in those sorts of conditions. But then, I’m not entirely convinced this was one of those.

Those hoping for a bracing, hardcore dose of Deutsche regietheater will be disappointed. Meierjohann’s R&J doesn’t explore ideas or concepts any more than Sarah Frankcom’s Hamlet does. In fairness, neither are trying to (although it’s interesting to note that R&J does have a production dramaturg). It’s sad to report that this feels as much like a trot-through-the-*story* as the broadest production at the Globe. Ok, yes, it has enough deviations-from-text, irreverent cuts, and added swears and sings to probably piss off a real purist, but it’s neither revolution nor revelation. For an unadorned “story first” production to work, the acting has to be first rate and you have to really care about the characters.

Instead, here the Star of the Show is its idiosyncratic venue. The Victoria Baths are some amusingly of-their-time public swimming pools (three entrances: Males – First Class; Males -Second Class; Females) which are currently being refurbished by a local charity. As a result, the production is necessarily site-responsive. Or rather: I refuse to believe that Meierjohann sat down at the first R&J planning meeting and said: “Right, I’ve got this great plan for Romeo and Juliet, but we need to find a building with a big room that contains an empty swimming pool that we Ti Green can build an interesting mirrored drawbridge in the middle of. We’ll do nearly the whole of the production in there, but the building also needs to have a huge empty room which we will use for one minor scene before the end. This is crucial. The venue also has to have a functioning swimming pool which we can bridge with a massive Orthodox cross, because wherever we find will have to vaguely remind me of *all of Eastern Europe*. We’ll do the last scene in there: it’ll have nice echoes for all the screaming and crying that goes on, and then some singing after. And we can have floating candles in the water. These things are crucial to my intellectual conception of this play. I am absolutely not an opportunist.”As it is, play, production, and location all seem to sit awkward, uptight, inert alongside each other, like three cold English people who don’t know each other on a railway bench.

There are several other problems added to this. Problem one is radio mics. I’m sure I’ve had this gripe before recently, but something they really ought to teach on the first day of drama school (and directing courses) is what a microphone does. This production has a voice coach credited. Fine. Shakespeare needs some breathing, I imagine. But it might have been worth mentioning to the voice coach that there’d be mics. Because the cast sound like they’re trying to fill the Albert Hall with their naked voices. Which doesn’t work for the mics and speakers (millions dotted round the room), and consequently for the acoustics of *a swimming pool*. (Interestingly, in the final scene, thanks to all the water, the radio mics had all come off, and suddenly all the acting made sense. A pity that this accounts for only the last ten minutes of 165 plus 20mins interval.) So, yes, point one: don’t shout into a radio mic. And, probably don’t RSC-act into one either. Oh, and, if you’re in a *really echoey room* the louder the noise you make, the more it bounces off the tiles and makes itself incomprehensible. Just saying.<

Then there’s the casting. If there was one thing that was great about the Royal Exchange Hamlet (and, there definitely weren’t two) it was the casting. Women as men, women playing fresh-minted female characters, a man as a woman, kids. etc. (indeed, the only place it fell down was how white most of the cast remained). Here the casting is about as clichéd as [insert familiar similie here]. R&J look (and sound) like hipster knock-offs of Wills and Kate. The nurse is doing a hispanic accent (made-up, I assume, since she’s also in The Archers). Montagues and Capulet Pères are played as rival cockney gangsters. Mercutio even reprises Baz Luhrman’s insistence that he be a ludicrously attractive black man given to flamboyant dressing (and occasional cross-dressing). Although here he also has a hot Scottish accent, which is new. And hot. The one original idea is making Paris an ineffectual Indian, replete with heavy accent.

Within the logic (or otherwise) of this world, individual performances vary wildly. Ruth Everett as the leopardskin-print-clad Lady Capulet does the best job of bending her lines to the situation and Sara Vickers at least invests considerable effort and sincerity in her Juliet. Meanwhile, much too much emoting aside (which is just a taste-in-acting thing), the main problem with Alex Felton’s Romeo is that he is all too convincing as the most annoying, self-absorbed gap-yah-in-love you’ve ever met. I mean, it’s stow-stoppingly convincing. But the reason you’d stop the show would be to throttle him. And they have Romeo keep bursting into song, or singing his lines. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’ve met people like this, and it’s a painfully accurate depiction. But, Christ, it’s hard to spend three hours in their company, let alone trying to give a fuck how they feel. I wanted Romeo dead by halfway through his first scene. None of this, I hasten to add, is against the actors. We’re talking about the fingernails-down-blackboard characters here. But what are we meant to do with these broad, stock characterisations, echoing about in an empty swimming pool?

I do worry that a lot of the problems described above might well be mine rather than the production’s. Like a “German”-addicted version of going all Michael Billington when he hasn’t been given enough “social criticism”. But I honestly don’t think it’s that. This is more the flip-side of Anglo-Euro collaboration. That, for every View From the Bridge (an incredible synthesis), there are going to be productions which try a similar thing and wind up as soup. I daresay, as well, that without the darkness and lighting effects (I’ve just looked at the photos), I missed a vital element of the seductions this production offers. But here it feels like a stark warning to a production – that if it can’t sustain interest in its performances and ideas without the bells and whistles, then it should take a deep breath and think harder about what it’s really doing.

But, y’know; pretty.


Andrew Haydon

Andrew Haydon was a freelance theatre critic (FT, Guardian, Time Out, etc.). He was also the editor of the CultureWars theatre section between 2000-2010, where he discovered exciting new theatre thinkers, including Andy Field, Matt Trueman and Miriam Gillinson. Then he went to Berlin for a while. Now he seems to be back for a bit. His blog here:

Romeo and Juliet Show Info

Directed by Walter Meierjohann

Cast includes Alex Felton, Sara Vickers




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