Romeo and Juliet, RSC Stratford-on-Avon until September 21
Romantics hoping to be transported to 14th century Verona for an achingly weepy-tragic love story played out beneath an ornate balcony can disembark here.
The balcony is a brutal steel cube which wouldn’t look out of place in Bladerunner.
It serves only briefly as a platform of passion. In this bleakly powerful performance of arguably Shakespeare’s best-known work, it dominates a barren stage like a brooding altar to death.
Wherefore art thou, doublet and hose? Lost in the transition of the feuding Capulet and Montague families to a setting more akin to the social wastelands of London where knife crime has risen 50 percent in two years.
Shakespeare might have approved of the switch. His great contemporary, playwright Christopher Marlowe, was murdered in a knife attack in Deptford.
This Romeo wears a hoodie and moves like a boy-band rapper with a posse that could have been recruited on the terraces at Millwall.
When Juliet answers his love calls it is with a soft Scottish brogue.
Her mother has a much stronger tartan twang; a messenger throws in a bit of Jamaican patois in one scene, and the masked ball is a hilarious pogo-rave with strobe lighting.
So we are in urban anywhere-England, where this New Year’s Day started with news that four men had died in stabbings.
The parallels are made through the costumes and setting not the dialogue, which remains true to Shakespeare.
Director Erica Whyman is unashamedly hoping to draw in a large youth audience. A cynic might say that the ones cheering loudest will be English literature teachers ushering in their A-level charges to see how relevant Shakespeare is today.
But like Romeo and Juliet’s short-lived marriage, coupling Shakespearean verse with a modern setting has pitfalls of confusion.
The complexity of word-play, the subtle nuances of language (although often bawdy) aren’t easily followed at the best of times. And this vibrant production sets a fast pace.
That said, there are some fine performances by a multicultural cast, supported by young actors from local schools. Bally Gill is a convincing Romeo, mastering the conflicting personality of a stupidly-in-love fop to that of a street-fighting killer.
But it is the women who take the spotlight in this production, taking full advantage of Shakespeare’s weapon of words to combat man’s inherent need for violence. Karen Fishwick’s Juliet is a thoughtfully balanced interpretation of the 14-year-old’s vulnerability and hard-earned wisdom, and Ishia Bennison as Nurse, on wobbly high heels, expertly delivers much-needed light relief.
Charlotte Josephine gives a standout performance as Mercutio - Romeo’s feisty ill-fated friend - played with the malevolence of a Cockney skinhead goading a peace rally. And, yes, Mercutio is written for a bloke. But this is a play that challenges stereotypes, including the belief that extreme violence is the sole province of men.
Pictures by Topher McGrillis
Above Romeo and Juliet , played by Bally Gill and Karen Fishwick