Oxford Shakespeare Company have established their reputation with small-scale, innovative adaptations of classic plays. This year they have turned - with the help of director Guy Retallack - to the romantic tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.
They have chosen to update the action of the Oxford of the late 1950s. This does give rise to a couple of concerns. Firstly it does stretch credibility to accept that Juliet would be married off at the age of 13 and that a local official would have the power of life and death over criminals without having to bother with a trial. The use of music in the production (which is consistently delivered well) does, however, serve to highlight the fact that Bernstein and his collaborators got their first with West Side Story. It is to the credit of the energetic and committed cast that we are swept along by their performances rather than dwelling on the inconsistencies of the setting.
Garden productions of Shakespeare can often be interrupted by the weather or noisy neighbours. Luckily the performance I saw was marred only by the occasional pigeon and some midges! Unlike a number of outdoor productions I have seen, the cast cope admirably with the conditions and every word is clearly projected and made to count. They are to be heartily congratulated for this.
Every summer, Oxford is full of tourists and language students, and they often make up a large proportion of the audiences at outdoor performances. I wonder whether the director had this in mind when he made certain choices. Generally the acting is over a high standard and the narrative is always clearly presented. However there are times when the cast are a little too literal in their gestures, a little too demonstrative. Whilst that this may aid those less familiar with the language, I do find it slightly distracting. However this is very much a matter of personal taste.
The cast of eight make the most of their many characters. Never once is the audience confused as to which characters are on stage - which is a major credit to the production team. Particuarly impressive is Poppy Roe who doubles an aloof Lady Capulet with a tom-boyish Benvolio.Alex Tomkins makes much of the muscularity of Romeo's language, he is able to capture the naive passion of a young man in love without ever descending into a parody of teenage angst. Sophie Franklin speaks Juliet with determination and conviction but does not quite convince us that she is a young girl coming to terms with her emerging sensuality.
Overall this is a pleasing, energetic production with some good performances. I do not believe it offers any great insight into the text but it does deliver a good balance between the broad humour and tragic elements and should provide the audiences with good entertainment for the rest of the summer.