A Shiny Life For Me!

a personal review blog by Bianca

Romeo & Juliet

Romeo & Juliet
22 June 2024
Duke of York’s Theatre
2.0 out of 5.0 stars

The hotly anticipated, and quickly sold out, brand new Jamie Lloyd production of Romeo & Juliet, starring Tom Holland and Francesca Amewudah-Rivers in the titular roles, is currently ruling the West End. But does this high calibre production live up to the hype?

Having been unsuccessful in the pre-sale, which sold out in record time, and not being willing to spend premium prices of up to £349 for one seat, we weren’t sure if we’d get to see this production at all. Repeatedly checking the play’s website for returns and new releases is absolutely worth it though, as we were able to secure a pair of £25 standing tickets for a Saturday night. But even at this bargain price, it does not feel like money well spent, as this production is a massive disappointment that left us baffled and deflated.

Jamie Lloyd takes his signature style of stripped back staging to an absolute extreme here, with a completely bare stage that can’t even be described as a black box stage, but rather looks like the previous production took all of their stage dressing down and no one bothered to even consider designing any kind of set. Every door, staircase, cable on show on a mostly darkened stage with a red strip at the very front. And it is this red stripe at the lip of the stage that is mostly utilized by the actors, who are all clad in black tracksuits. There are no props, no stage lighting, no backdrops, just darkened bare stage with occasional side-lighting.

There is one large construction of a metal fence on steel girders that rises and lowers throughout the performance and is used as a large screen to project the various live camera shots, but this gimmick is used to such a sickening extent, the whole show does not even feel like live theatre any more.

With actors either facing the audience, standing next to each other a few feet apart and occasionally speaking into absolutely redundant microphone stands, or facing away from the audience while speaking directly into a camera fitted with the brightest lighting they could find, this show not only fails to build any kind of connection with the audience, there is also a complete lack of tension between the characters themselves. Very rarely do any characters even look at each other, they simply recite their lines towards the audience, or directly into a camera at an uncomfortably close angle but with their backs to the audience. All of the emotionality, the deep passion that makes this particular story what it is, is completely sucked out of it.

Instead, the production opts to try to build artificial tension by keeping the stage and auditorium in almost complete darkness, pierced by bright lights at pivotal moments, and pumping an audioscape of industrial, apocalyptic noise across the theatre. When there is any sound at all, as most scenes are accompanied by complete and utter silence. This contrived, synthetic tension does not reach the depth of emotion this Shakespearean classic usually provides to the audience and does nothing to help the bland, boring, extremely formulaic staging.

Some of the scene choices are completely baffling, like the masked ball being set in the champagne bar of the Duke of York’s theatre, from where it is projected onto the large screen on stage, but simultaneously opting to place Romeo right at the front of the stage gazing out into the audience while breathlessly reciting the lines of the very first time he lays eyes on Juliet. Not even placing the two characters in the same space is such a perplexing choice, taking all of the passion and emotion out of one of the most pivotal scenes of the play. But then again, none of the scenes stand out in any way as the entire play feels like a samey, formulaic, massively pretentious exercise that feels as if the production team loathe the idea of live theatre and would rather be making movies instead.

Throughout, the entire show does feel more like an unfortunate love child between a rehearsed reading and a highly conceptualised film school final project. Everything that makes live theatre what it is, everything that creates that magical connection between actors and audience, the intimate experience of seeing characters and scenes come to life right in front of you, is stripped away and kicked to the curb. The few times we actually do see actors on stage rather than projected from some other location throughout the theatre, they are either dispassionately staring at the lower edge of the royal circle, or turning their back to the audience to get up close and personal with a camera whose bright light is blinding and distracting while the massively blown up faces of the actors flicker across the screen on stage. There is absolutely no theatre magic in this production.

During the final scene in which Romeo and Juliet end their young lives, both characters simply sit on the lip of the stage, only closing their eyes to denote their own deaths. There are no props, no poison or dagger, no gestures, no life or suffering, simply two people chilling out next to each other, saying some words. I even heard the woman behind me try to explain to her seat companion that Romeo had just died and Juliet will follow, so hollow and devoid of emotion and understanding is the scene.

Shortening the script while dragging out each line in a bid to add faux meaning, where real meaning could so easily be acted out, making actors either whisper menacingly or shout dispassionately, robs the story of everything that makes it the classic that it is. We were left to wonder whether those less familiar with the text and plot could possibly grasp the depth and meaning of the story after being treated to this stale and tedious production.

The only reason I can justify giving two stars are the stand-out performances by Freema Agyeman as nurse, and Michael Balogun as friar Laurence, bringing some much needed passion and surprising humour to an otherwise bland and insipid production. Elevating two important but also somewhat peripheral characters to the most sympathetic and interesting characters in the play is quite a feat, and these two definitely accomplished that. Generally the acting from the entire cast was as strong as it can be when forced to stand still and not engage with the other characters they are actually talking to, but nowhere near enough to save this drowning vanity project.

Perhaps this mess of a show will finally make a dent in the recent trend of Hollywood big name productions with budgets they do not deserve being inflicted on the West End. And this is another thing to ponder, where did the budget for this staging or Romeo & Juliet go? There are no sets, no backdrops, no plots whatsoever, no costumes to speak of, no live band, no frills at all.

In closing, if you felt any inkling of FOMO for not getting tickets, don’t. It was a stroke of good luck that saved you from spending more than two hours in a pitch black auditorium without any emotional pay-off. You’re better off getting a ticket for the cinema at a fraction of the price, enjoying a medium that doesn’t try to be a completely different medium. Let’s let live theatre be live theatre, it really does not need constant camera work and technological gimmicks, it just needs to touch the audience, connect in a unique and meaningful way. None of which this production achieves. Save yourself the time and money, an absolute disappointment on all fronts.

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