Set in a multi-national, colourfully ethnic, 17th-century Istanbul, motivation is given to the Montague-Capulet feud by placing them on the opposite side of a religious divide. The Montagues are followers of the Islamic faith and the Capulets Christian. What could otherwise be seen as an over-artificial conceit is given resonance by the front pages of today's newspapers, although in this context the Muslim Romeo's rush to marriage in front of Friar Lawrence seems a little unlikely.
This handsomely dressed showing (design by Colin Falconer) also scores in its cast who, with very few exceptions, articulate the drama confidently. Some of the text is lost, most so in the opening scenes, by being directed upstage, but this is a minor niggle with Rubasingham's otherwise impeccable direction. One of my favourite moments comes with Romeo's first glimpse of Juliet at a stylishly choreographed Oriental style ball, highlighted by a very effective, lighting-heightened slow-motion effect.
And what a star Chichester has found in Emily Blunt's Juliet! This girl is going places. Her performance here belies her age and fully justifies her recent Whatsonstage.com Award for London Newcomer of the Year (for her West End debut in The Royal Family). With extreme versatility and apparent ease, Blunt turns her hand from heart-wrenching tragedy to flighty and flirtatious adolescence to unbridled vamp. She also has a natural talent for physical expression and, in the famous balcony scene, playful impatience writ large, she is superb even when mute. In the equally talented Lex Shrapnel as Romeo, Blunt has found her match; their scenes together are thoroughly convincing.
Elsewhere among the younger cast members, both Jack Tarlton (Mercutio) and Alexis Conran (Tybalt) are outstanding, while old stagers Paul Shelley and Una Stubbs lend just the right measure of gravitas and comic bawdiness, respectively, to the parts of Capulet and the Nurse. A word of praise, too, for the Miltos Yerolemou, who, in two small cameos, infuses his characters with a good deal more than the text demands.
- Stephen Gilchrist