“For never was a story of more woe, than this of Juliet and her Romeo.” The final lines of Shakespeare’s great romantic tragedy are spoken by the prince of a divided city. Here, it’s an epilogue to a faintly silly dust-up in an old folks’ home.
New Bristol Old Vic director Tom Morris traces the idea of an overage Romeo and Juliet back to his days at the Battersea Arts Centre, where he directed the worst production of Macbeth (with Corin Redgrave and Amanda Harris; how could it be so bad? ) I’ve ever seen.
But after his important and innovative stint at the National Theatre, where he developed Coram Boy and War Horse, this show marks a lively statement of intent in the old Georgian theatre, which has comfortable new stalls (alas, no central aisle) and a new thrust stage.
Bolstered by old favourites like “The Sun has got his hat on” and “Love Is, the Sweetest Thing,” R and J get cosy in the Verona Care Home plc, supervised by a green-costumed nurse and a young Ms Capulet who doesn’t really bring in the weight of Shakespeare’s warring families.
Instead, we get a chance encounter at a tea dance, where Juliet’s in a private ward and Romeo’s an awkward cuss on the state health system. It’s all part of the new ageism in theatre – the Young at Heart choral set-ups and the revitalised Pina Bausch Kontaktof with seniors.
So the whole re-imagining reeks of not political correctness but political opportunism: the headlong passion and street-fighting vitality of the play are inverted to another scenario where “I prithee, good Mercutio, let’s retire,” gets a feeble laugh about OAPs behaving badly.
That said, 76-year-old Sian Phillips is transcendent as Juliet, a game old sexy senior, while 66-year-old Michael Byrne struts his stuff as Romeo with a fading twinkle and what’s left of a mutilated text. RSC veteran Terry Taplin is a jolly Benvolio, while 83-year-old Michael Medwin potters around amiably as a pin-striped lost cause Paris.
The show’s not radical enough to be a milestone, despite the deeply touching ancient Mercutio of Dudley Sutton, slowing the Queen Mab speech down to his own epitaph; but still the Tom Morris era here is off to a good and lively start, even if Shakespeare’s play has been sold short, not to say cut to ribbons, and parcelled up as something completely else. What about the real Bristol old and loveless?