By all my own rules I should hate this production: for me Shakespeare is primarily about the language. But you’d have to be a life-denying curmudgeon not to be swept along by the sheer kitschy exuberance of this Icelandic company’s circus-style version of the most famous of all love stories. Actually, I could still be that curmudgeon if all the dare-devil inventiveness did not respect the passion and tragedy of the original.
Theatre Vesturport’s Romeo and Juliet first came to London from Reykjavik as a joint production with the Young Vic last year, where it became something of a cult. Part of the attraction is the youth of the company (there has rarely been a more beautiful pair of star-crossed lovers) but even more important are the qualities that come with that: a shameless irreverence, a fearlessness and an understanding of the physicality of both love and violence.
Proceedings begin with a jokey ringmaster who insults the audience and lapses into Icelandic but - trust me - manages to be funny. This is Peter, a servant in the Capulet household. Soon we are introduced to Romeo, a glamorous Gisli Orn Gardarsson who undertakes the shared sonnet with Juliet (Nina Dogg Filippusdottir), when they meet at the Capulets’ party, hanging upside down from a chandelier.
Paris (Thor Kristinsson), Juliet’s intended husband, is a figure of fun, singing romantic standards in a rather fine voice and Friar Laurence (Arni Petur Gudjonsson) is so high on his herbs that the iconic Jesus in his cell enjoys a couple of fags and plays guitar. The Nurse is a bear-like man (Olafur Darri Olafsson) with wayward rubber breasts.
A good deal of the text is cut or occasionally in Icelandic but, if one misses Juliet’s “Gallop apace” speech, for instance, the newlyweds’ bedroom scene - on a ring trapeze - somehow manages to express the spirit of Shakespeare in fluid movement. The actors are aided by excellent lighting (by Tim Mitchell) and, especially, a mood-enhancing soundscape ( by Karl Olgeirsson).
The wordless deaths are exceptionally moving. Romeo dances with Juliet’s lifeless body and then dies by casting himself upside down in a “tissu” or length of silk hanging from the ceiling. After all the ribald laughter there is silence.
The resources of the Young Vic - Rufus Norris is acknowledged as associate director with Gisli Orn Gardasson - played a considerable part in the early success of this piece. While it seems more contained behind the Playhouse’s proscenium arch than it did in the Young Vic’s intimate space, it’s unique qualities remain intact.
- Heather Neill
NOTE: The following two star review dates from October 2003 and this production's original London run at the Young Vic.
It's certainly got novelty value and a boisterous appeal that may well attract younger theatregoers (who are, after all, the Young Vic's official constituency), some of whom were cheering it to the rafters on the press night. But just like the other two versions of the last 12 months, it's a distortion of Shakespeare's tragedy to its own ends.
The result owes as much to Cirque du Soleil as it does to the Bard, turning the play more into a comic carnival than a real investigation of brooding family rivalries and the star-cross'd lovers caught between them. With carnival lights draped around the auditorium - that is divided in half by a bouncy ramp above which the action takes place - there's a party atmosphere from the start, and a court jester in the unruly shape of Vikingur Kristjansson's Peter to marshal proceedings.
For the marriage of Romeo and Juliet that ends the first half of a heavily cut text, the entire audience are even invited to join in the nuptials by blowing bubbles over the auditorium. But elsewhere the staging, though undeniably always athletically impressive, isn't quite so involving. Speeches delivered while the lovers are entwined in a trapeze and hanging upside down from each other make you think more about the form of the production than the content of the words. The whole circus motif feels imposed on the play, rather than an organic development out of it.
Likewise, Erlander Eirkiksson's every entrance as Paris sees him arriving as a cabaret crooner, a device that quickly becomes intensely wearying. Also, with most of the company speaking in heavily accented Icelandic English, the verse sounds chopped and stilted.
There are, however, some compensations. Gisli Orn Gardarsson, who plays Romeo as well as directs, takes his shirt off and Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson's Mercutio is gorgeous, too. And the trapeze acts give you plenty to look at. But I wanted to do more than just ogle; I wanted to be transported. Despite flying high, this production keeps the play itself earthbound.