Grassroots Shakespeare are committed to what they call ‘original practices', all of which impact on their productions. They do gender-blind casting, their rehearsal periods are short and intense, and they do not use a director. Their interpretations are thus borne out of ensemble work, which have the potential to work brilliantly provided the ensemble in question is strong enough for the challenge.
The production has a shaky start. As we file in, the Capulet serving men mime spraying graffiti on the walls (rebellious indeed), and the prologue (spoken by Jonathan Akingba, who plays both Chorus and Prince), is stilted. The brawl fares little better.
But the production matures immeasurably as the lead characters take to the stage. Boris Mitkov's Romeo is a Romantic with a capital R, carrying a book of Keats' poetry around while he sighs over Rosaline. He is a blithering lovesick teenager, sometimes sympathetic, sometimes weedy. Yet his first encounter with Juliet (Loren O'Brien) is genuinely delicate, and their ‘holy Palmers kiss' reveals the sweet and sentimental nature of teenage adoration.
Juliet (O'Brien) is sharp, smart, and as the play unfolds, increasingly neurotic. They make a great teenage couple: as Mitkov catches sight of O'Brien, it is endearing that his tender verbiage is provoked by watching Juliet brush her teeth.
Juliet's parents are an odd couple indeed. Lucas Livesey's sassy mannerisms as Lady Capulet are highly perceptive, while Lord Capulet's (Matthew Cavendish) anger at his daughter's defiance seems to channel King Lear's fury on discovering how sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child. James Swanton's Friar Laurence is a marvellous caricature of bumbling old age, and yet as the production climaxes in tragic double suicide his recapitulation of the plot could use editing so not to lose us at the play's end.
There are some fine moments in this production, and O'Brien's Juliet is particularly memorable. But the music which suddenly plays as Romeo sees Juliet lying dead is sentimental and unnecessary: the language literally speaks for itself, and if you want to further poeticise the moment then productions really have to commit to it a la Baz Luhrmann rather than just use soft piano music as a shorthand for poignancy.
In addition, there are scuffed lines (as can be sadly customary for press night), and the show is held back by the weakness of the minor characters.
It seems a bit too easy to say that the production lacks overall direction given that there is no director, but it is true nonetheless. Grassroots' emphasis on ‘original practices' is vaguely interesting, but does it offer new insights into Shakespeare's text? Not really.