A word of warning to anyone planning to see this Romeo and Juliet, the opening production in the RSC's year-long Complete Works festival - get to the theatre in good time. Miss the opening few minutes and you’re likely to spend the next three hours baffled.
For director Nancy Meckler introduces a framing device - an opening scene - which establishes this as a play being performed by a warring Italian community who set aside their grievances - and shotguns - to perform. In truth, the conceit adds little, and the exchange of the usual knife fights for Riverdance-style tapping routines, albeit admirably drilled, and the Stomp-style banging of wooden staves slips from time to time into the risible.
This said, there’s much to enjoy in Meckler’s staging, which, as anyone who saw her recent Comedy of Errors would anticipate, is beautifully and imaginatively done, aided by the designs of Katrina Lindsay and the beguiling lighting of Neil Austin.
A giant metal gantry, studded with lights, looms across the stage. It is hung, in turn, with decorations marking Capulet festivities and then, scaffold-like, with the coats of the victims of the internecine violence. Those not taking part in the drama sit on chairs at the side of the stage, or train lights on fellow actors.
Purists may, however, baulk at the 'balcony' - which here resembles a playground climbing frame, or four sets of stepladders lashed together, albeit topped with silvered foliage. And is that bare tree stage left a nod to Waiting for Godot or not?
But to the acting. It's not, in truth, a 'great' Romeo and Juliet. Of the cast, the older players come off best, notably David Fielder as a grumpier Friar Laurence than is common, Nicholas Day as Capulet and Sorcha Cusack as the Nurse (although she may prove too 'Oirish' for some tastes). James Ballard is excellent as a fleet and acid-tongued Mercutio - until an ill-judged and far too hysterical death scene.
Morven Christie captures Juliet's early skittishness well enough but is a little shrill, before growing over the course of the play. Rupert Evans as Romeo is personable and ardent but doesn't chart the same arc of development.
Eastern-sounding Sicilian songs, composed by Ilona Sekacz, and performed by an on-stage ensemble, add to the colour.