A large heart-shaped arrangement of flowers dominates the stage and greets the audience as they enter the Unicorn’s Weston Theatre. For Pilot Theatre’s production of Romeo and Juliet, designed for “everyone aged 11+” the flowers are a shrine, creating a sense of vigil and tragedy. The candles surrounding the stage are reminiscent of Baz Lurhmann’s 1996 film (also playing to a younger, trendier audience). The production begins with Lady Capulet (Mary Rose) delivering the prologue, a grief-stricken mother. Characters stand around her as the stage fog begins billowing, and Juliet crawls into a large square, much like a television screen, in the upper stage. This is a modern-day setting, with actors in trendy dress: Converse, skinny jeans, zipper hoodies. Chloe Lamford’s design involves a large background screen with color washes. A raked stage leads to a raised staging area on which are wooden beams, some of them holding candles. In the center of the raised platform is a large square, outlined in blue electric light. The square serves as Juliet’s bedroom and later her funeral bier.
Given the choices by directors Marcus Romer and Katie Posner, there are three things, apparently, that make this a production designed for a youthful audience: stage fog, background score, and penis/breast jokes. To begin with the last first: Chris Lindon’s Mercutio, for instance, cannot stop thrusting his pelvis. He employs some of the vegetation as a make-shift phallus. If there is an opportunity to pelvic thrust, shake some booty, or imitate breasts, Pilot’s production takes it. Romeo and Juliet certainly contains much bawdy, but the constant repetition becomes a bit dull, though it sends titters through the pre-pubescent/pubescent audience. For all its pelvic thrusting, the production’s actual enactment of the Romeo-Juliet marriage night is tame, where the lovers briefly lie on a bed of flowers before the lights cut out and reset to the next morning. In focusing so heavily (pregnancy and sex pun!) on the sexual humor, the production loses sight of romantic connection between the lead characters.
Sandy Nuttgens’s score provides background music through the show. The music initially drowns out the opening dialogue and occasionally distracts, but it is mostly soft strings and piano. As Juliet contemplates the potion from Friar Lawrence (a Che Guevara T-shirt wearing Richard James-Neale) that will give her something “like death” the music pulses, imitating the slow beating of a heart. As for the stage fog, it is near constant and feels like a crutch for creating atmosphere.
Rachel Spicer’s Juliet is a convincing young teenager, intoning sardonically. She, like Cleopatra, is mercurial, apt to change her mind frequently, petulant. She tosses Paris’s (Lindon, in a much more restrained doubling) flowers aside, and pays little attention to her mother. As she speaks of her love of Romeo, she gathers up an armful of flowers and cuddles them (prompting a few “Ewws” from some of the younger boys in the audience). Spicer seems most at home in the emotional fury generated in the fight with her father (William Travis). Travis does a solid job of pushing an emotionally safe production to uncomfortable territory, prompting the realization of what is at stake—and how much Juliet has to lose. Oliver Wilson’s Romeo is something of a cipher, with a touch of recitation about him. Bryn Holding is an endearing Benvolio, often the (literal) butt of Mercutio’s jokes, but he creates a sense of groundedness as this teenage dream becomes a nightmare.
The production moves swiftly, and fight director Philip D’Orleans provides two gritty slash-and-cut knife fights. There is a tendency in the cast to accompany images in the text with a direct physical movement, a way of concretely explaining the text. Mercutio’s “You are a lover; borrow Cupid’s wings, / And soar with them” becomes Lindon holding a bouquet of flowers in either hand and flapping them while prancing along the stage. A more physically explanative production appears to hold the audience’s attention—a younger audience from the ages of ten or eleven to seventeen or eighteen.
Aided by Spicer’s intelligent portrayal, Pilot’s production of Romeo and Juliet provides an engaging introduction to Shakespeare’s text. But it suffers from too often taking the way of cheap thrills over creative direction.
Pilot’s production of Romeo and Juliet shows at the Unicorn Theatre (London) until February 12, 2011. It tours cities in the UK until April 9, 2011. For a list of tour places and dates, click here.