Updating this classic romatic tragedy to the 1950s brings a number of challenges. The first is the unavoidable fact that West Side Story got there first. The timeshift makes the idea of Juliet being married off at the age of 13 and the immediate threat of execution without trial rather hard to reconcile with the realities of life in the middle of the twentieth century. To their credit, the cast sweep you along with their energy and commitment that these inconsistencies do not matter as much as they might. However the decision to use a lot of music in the production only serves to highlight how good a job Bernstein et al did with their version of the same story.
Outdoor production of Shakespeare are always at the mercy of the elements and the noises provided by the local community. The performance I saw was interrupted only by the occasional pigeon and a few midges! The cast cope well with the demands of the garden setting - every syllable was clearly enunciated and made to count. Compared to some productions I have seen, this is a major credit to all who have worked on preparing the performances.
Summer Shakespeares in Oxford are often major attractions for visitors from overseas and I did wonder whether the director had this in mind with some of his choices. I found that the acting, on the whole, is always very direct and the narrative emerges simply and with clarity. However I did find that occasionally the cast were a little too literal in their presentation of the text, a little too demonstrative. This is very much a matter of personal taste and I am sure those less familiar with the language would find this style of presentation aided their understanding. However for my liking, it was a little distracting.
Overall, the casting is strong. The team of 8 actors play multiple roles which could have lead to some confusion - but it is to their credit that the audience is always aware of which characters are on stage at any one point. Poppy Roe is particularly impressive in her doubling of the tom-boyish Benvolio and the rather more aloof character of Lady Capulet. Alex Tomkins makes much of the muscularity of the language given to Romeo - he is able to capture the slightly naive passion of a young man in love without descending into a parody of teenage angst. Sophie Franklin spoke Juliet with conviction and some force however I remain unconvinced that she is a young girl coming to terms with social convention and her growing awareness of her own sensuality.
This is a lively and accessible production of a classic play with some strong performances. I do not feel it sheds any significant insight into the text but it does succeed at bringing out the humour of the work alongside the more tragic elements and should provide audiences with entertainment throughout the summer.
Continues until 22nd August
Box Office: 01865 305305