It can be an ominous sign when it’s the designer who gets interviewed at length in the programme, not the director. So it proves with Derby Playhouse’s Romeo and Juliet. The designer in question, Duncan Hayler, explains that the many references to heat in the play led to the interpretation that, in a future world bereft of water, the feud between Montagues and Capulets could be about control of the water supply – also he had “this image of a gleaming chrome truck” in his head.
The result is a stage dominated by a massive water tanker which looks splendid and is manoeuvred with great technical expertise, but seems to me to add nothing to the production. Nobody fights for control of it, nor does there appear to be a water shortage. In the one scene where the tanker materially affects the action - the Tybalt/Romeo fight where chunks of the truck are pressed into action as weapons - Matthew Flynn seems likely to be the first Tybalt to drown before ultimately succumbing to a blade to the throat like Marat in his bath. And, at the risk of being too logical, why should our declining world be peopled by late-mediaeval knights (Montagues) and white-suited administrators of the Empire (Capulets)?
Understandably piqued at taking second place to a water-wagon, many of the cast (including Ben Joiner’s Romeo) give generic performances, competent, but no more. Luckily, there are compensations in the Capulet household with sharply defined parents from Mary Conlon and Robin Bowerman and, especially, Olivia Lumley’s Juliet, sexually aware, wilful, self-possessed, temperamentally ill-suited to the role of dutiful daughter. Hopefully, this interpretation, rather than fear of moral outrage, was behind the perverse decision to add two years to her age.
Ben Roberts doubles capably as an unusually irascible Friar Laurence and a biker Prince (hence the cutting of the Friar’s crucial part in the last scene) and Alistair Robins’ Mercutio is firmly and intelligently spoken, though his eminently clear Chorus is a bit laboured.
Director Stephen Edwards is also responsible for an effective musical score, performed heroically by keyboardist Kelvin Towse, though the almost constant underscoring of the action is unhelpfully reminiscent of silent cinema. Lighting designer Charles Balfour ingeniously varies the stage picture despite the ever-looming presence of the great tank – when it finally disappears, Balfour is left to create the claustrophobia of the Capulets’ tomb single-handed.
Despite substantial cuts, the performance misses Shakespeare’s “two hours’ traffic of our stage” by about an hour, but Edwards maintains a decent pace. Tempo is not a problem; conviction is.