Hull Truck Theatre in Romeo & Juliet, Stage@The Dock, Hull, until August 7. Box office: hulltruck.co.uk.
CHATTING with an actor the other day, the question arose: how did you decide to play your Romeo?
“I’ve seen so many bad productions of Romeo & Juliet where I can’t wait for them to die, because they’re not very likeable!” he said. “I still truly believe that!
“I knew the approach I had to take was, I didn’t need the audience to fall in love with me, I just needed Juliet to fall in love with me. As soon as you worry about what the audience thinks of you, then Romeo is guaranteed to be unlikeable.”
Interesting, then, that Hull Truck Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet really do love each other. So much so, Hull-born duo Jordan Metcalfe and Laura Elsworthy are real-life husband and wife, marrying in the summer of 2018 after bonding when working on The Hypocrite in Hull’s year as UK City of Culture in 2017.
Thankfully, they have survived rather longer than Shakespeare’s tragic star-cross’d young lovers to tell the tale. Thankfully too, this is not an R&J where you “can’t wait for them to die, because they’re not very likeable”.
Strangely, however, the coupling does not have the same chemistry on stage as off. Chemistry should lead to biology, but Metcalfe’s wet-behind-the-ears Romeo comes over more as the fifth member of a boy band, one for the shadows, not a natural lead. Crucially, kissing by the dock, the sparks do not fly with Elsworthy’s Juliet and nor do the sudden flare-ups of fury that lead to murder carry conviction.
Elsworthy is better by far: more assured in her restless performance, spoilt, temperamental, teenage to the max, not averse to blunt northern humour, and she makes Shakespeare’s language catch fire with her Hull vowels. Pre-notoriety Amy Winehouse to his Summer Holiday Cliff Richard, at a stretch.
Hull Truck artistic director Mark Babych’s two hours’ traffic on the R&J stage is not unlikeable but nor is it is loveable, either.
In the rudimentary amphitheatre of Hull’s converted former dry dock, he sets up a traverse stage to emphasise the antipathy between the warring Capulets and Montagues, with a tent at either end for props and instruments.
Those costume designs, by Sian Thomas, are a star turn on the otherwise bare wooden stage: a catwalk for 1950s’ Italian and American college fashion that inevitably echo West Side Story, Bernstein and Sondheim’s American spin on R&J.
One American voice pops over the Atlantic in the dapper form of Reno-born, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama-trained Richard McIver’s hat-tilting Mercutio, every inch the scene stealer he should be. (Back in 1977, in an English Literature class, your reviewer was told Shakespeare killed off Mercutio prematurely because he was pinching the play from an under-par Romeo!).
McIver’s Guys And Dolls panache is typical of the knowing, bite-your-thumb irreverence that permeates Babych’s interpretation, where all manner of accents and acting styles prevail.
Multi-instrumentalist Nicholas Goode’s Prince Escalus and Friar John could have popped out of a Kneehigh Theatre show; Laurie Jamieson’s double bill of fiery Tybalt and fixer Friar Lawrence would suit a Shane Meadows film or Shameless; EM Williams’s bleached Benvolio is part Puck, part punk.
Lady and Lord Capulet fuse into Carolyn Backhouse’s Capulet, a Cruella de Vil figure, while Amanda Gordon’s Nurse is suitably irritating, irrational, contradictory yet kind all at once.
Babych has fun with a colourful, impassioned Romeo And Juliet, rather than finding the aching poetry and doomed love at this time of a plague on all our houses. Playing broader strokes is a gamble, one that leads to less rather than “more woe”, but the get-up-and-go suits the setting, distracting from regrets over not bringing cushions to soften the seating.
Review by Charles Hutchinson