Bringing Shakespeare into the 21st century is always a challenge. Although we know that his themes, relationships and plot lines are just as relevant today as they were to Elizabethan audiences, it’s sometimes hard to communicate this through the fast-paced, tongue-twisting dialogue and array of puns that have lost their cultural references.
On the surface, director Zoe Ford’s notion of setting Romeo and Juliet in the mods and rockers rivalry of 1960s Brighton is inspired: each revolves around a pointless feud between two sets of people who have simply decided to be different. Unfortunately, other than the fact that the Capulets wear leather and tight jeans and the Montagues dress in suits, there is virtually nothing which links these two ideas together. The set is initially promising, a section of pier with enormous balcony potential, but it goes completely unused other than making entrances and exits slightly awkward as the actors avoid the diagonal bracing. It feels frustrating and distracting.
The actors work hard, and there is a clear sense that the company have really worked through the text in order to explore the emotional nuances and look for imaginative ways to bring the dialogue into a modern era. Mercutio (Alexander Neal) is particularly energetic and encapsulates the mercurial qualities of his character, but unfortunately little is left to our imagination: throughout the entire piece, not one sexual innuendo is allowed to pass without crude pelvic thrusting, as if the director is safeguarding against an unintelligent audience.
One of the key problems is in the casting. Although the performances are individually strong, it simply doesn’t work that Lady Capulet and Lord Montague appear to be much the same age as their offspring, while Mercutio and, to a lesser extent, Benvolio are rather too far the wrong side of 20 to make sense as Romeo’s buddies. Although Romeo and Juliet (Benjamin Ireland and Maya Thomas) give extremely compelling performances in their own right, since they are both quite clearly well into their twenties, it just isn’t believable that these are young, naïve, idealistic lovers who would kill themselves for each other.
It takes a careful portrayal of these characters to make an audience believe they would throw everything away for someone they’ve met three times: the restrictive nature of the families and the pointless frustration of the feud need to play their part, and neither was sufficiently emphasised here to take the audience along on the characters’ ride.