Good ideas don’t always translate into good theatre and I'm always a little wary of programme notes which seem to tell you why you should appreciate a particular production. Romeo and Juliet at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester in a co-production with Salida – itself a creation of Ed Hughes and Michael Vale with patronage from Kenneth Branagh – is a case in point.
It ticks all the right boxes – performers’ commitment, an innovative staging, international cooperation, contemporary relevance – but not in all the right places. Romeo and Juliet works as dance and as music theatre, as Gounod, Prokofiev, Bernstein, Lavrosky, Ashton, Cranko and Macmillan among others have proved. Here the Asterillo Tango Orchestra from Argentina provides the soundtrack for the story of young love doomed by a violence it cannot control. The orchestra’s players also provide the underclass which services Verona’s elite.
The principal victim of Hughes’ production is the poetry. When the young aristocrats of the original story are tattooed, crop-haired thugs and both Juliet (Maria Victoria Di Pace) and Mercutio(Javier Alcina) patently don’t have English as a first language, this is bound to happen. If the Queen Mab speech was comprehensible, Juliet’s great third act speech was not. Yet Di Pace has the fire for Juliet’s impetuosity and made more of her first encounter for Gus Gallagher’s Romeo.
This was another ragged performance, tearing every passion within grasp into untidy shreds. The best performance of the evening comes from Shuna Snow as the Nurse, a woman not yet into middle age, sharp-tongued but not strident yet knowing on which side of the Capulet bread her butter lies. Keith Dunphy doubling Montague and Friar Lawrence made the latter a dreamy ecclesiastic, more concerned perhaps with the future of his plant experiments than with the current state of his penitents’ souls.
Vale’s design gives us three platforms, one of which is in the actual auditorium; there is also much use of the aisles. The orchestra sits on the one furthest to the back of the stage with a main acting area to its front. Projections give an impression of where we might be at any time with the words of the prologue and of Escalus flashed on to remind us that the tragedies engulfing three families have a wider, civic reverberation. The music is by Julián Peralta and the choreography by Leandro Palou and Romina Godoy. This worked well for Capulet’s party and the young lovers’ first meeting.
Every subsidised theatre has a duty to mount productions which challenge preconceptions – the right to fail has been won with difficulty and is indeed a right worth fighting for. But that recognition doesn’t necessarily transmute a failure into a success. For me, this production just didn’t work as I had hoped it would.