Another year, another Shakespeare play at the Crucible. But while in recent years these plays have sometimes struggled with odd set dressing and middling performances, this year up-and-coming director Jonathan Humphreys has managed to deliver an absolute belter.
This play’s version of Verona is decidedly grungier than the ones we’re used to seeing. A minimalist set of chipboard and corrugated iron combines with the deliberately downmarket nature of the costumes to create an aesthetic we do not usually associate with Shakespeare. The contrast is compelling, with the play’s lush poetry and the set’s rough utilitarianism reinforcing each other beautifully. While deliberately unflashy, the sets are very inventively used, with highlights including cold iron folding away to reveal a tacky bar and holes in the floor opening up to form Jacuzzis. The instability of Verona is embodied in the instability of the scenery.
But it’s the performances which really stand out. Freddie Fox makes an excellent Romeo, brimming with angst and charisma, and he manages particularly well when he’s at his least courageous; Fox is never afraid to make Romeo a pathetic figure. Morfydd Clark is raw class as Juliet, with her soliloquy at the start of the second half standing out as particularly moving, and the two share a phenomenal chemistry.
But the dirty secret of Romeo and Juliet is that the supporting cast is always more interesting than the leads, a fact that this production understands perfectly. Rachel Lumberg steals the show as the Nurse, delivering the requisite comic relief as well as a genuinely moving performance which frankly outclasses most of her fellow performers, especially when paired with the hilarious Joshua Miles as Peter. Robin Kingsland is also a treat as Juliet’s father, taking one of the play’s least iconic roles and turning it into a real highlight, his unnatural delivery and facial tics making him a chillingly memorable presence.
The weak link, sadly, is Charlie Bate as the Friar. Her comic timing is strong, and the decision to reimagine her character as a mild-mannered CofE vicar is interesting, but she simply doesn’t display the range necessary to pull off the play’s most interesting character. Mind you, the scene of her and Lumberg both shouting at Romeo to get over himself after killing Tybalt may well be the best scene of the play.
Superbly acted, compellingly staged and impeccably paced, this is everything a Shakespeare production should be, faithful to the spirit of the play while finding brand new territory to explore. While there are a few bum notes here and there, this is a production as visceral, raw and exciting as its original text. Plus it features the single best use of an onstage leaf-blower that I’ve ever seen.