When this year’s Marlowe Society’s production at the Cambridge Arts Theatre was announced as Romeo and Juliet, arguably Shakespeare’s best known and most loved play, expectation was immediately high.
Each year Marlowe showcases some of Cambridge’s most impressive theatrical talent, and I was intrigued to see how such a skilled team would approach a play that has seen a multitude of adaptations and productions over the years. Ultimately, Tom Littler’s production of Rome and Juliet did not fail to impress. The show was captivating, compelling, and beautifully and admirably carried off by a cast of great integrity and strength. They bore the weight of such a renowned and historically leaden play with ease, levity and assurance.
In the struggle to create new and exciting Shakespearian adaptations, sometimes wrapped in outlandish and inexplicable concepts, one can often lose sight of the integral themes that beat at the heart of Shakespeare’s work. But Littler’s choice of setting was understated and simple, providing the perfect environment for the beating, passionate heart of the play to take centre stage. Set in 1930’s Andalusia, the pulsating rhythm of Flamenco and the heat of the Spanish plaza drive the passion and violence inherent in the play to its inevitable conclusion, pushed and baited by the suffocating crowd that seems to be uncomfortably close throughout the production.
As expected, the acting talent showcased was abundant and impressive, each actor’s lively engagement and connection with their character evident throughout. Matilda Wickham’s Juliet was particularly enthralling, beautifully balanced between confident, humorous teenager and grief-stricken lover, their astute performance shrewdly navigated the vast range of emotions required without ever feeling strained or contrived. Saskia Ross and Harry Burke as Mercutio and Benvolio brought a lively energy to the core of the production, and Adam Mirsky’s Friar Laurence was handled with humour and sensitivity. The play was given life and breath by the energetic ensemble, all of whom demonstrated incredible versatility, unity and talent, effectively becoming the vibrant population of Andalusia. Hindhaugh’s elegant and poised performance as Prince was authoritative and calmly commanding, their delivery of the final line of the play echoing hauntingly as the stage fell into darkness.
The production was executed with remarkable precision and elegance, spurred on by the beat of the Spanish dance. Complicated choreographed dance scenes were carried out with confidence and accuracy, and fight scenes were staged and executed convincingly. The lighting design was impressively sophisticated, understated yet dramatic, and the set was versatile and evocative despite, or perhaps due to its simplicity and utility. The production possessed all the outward visages of a volatile and passionate Spain; the intense, traditional Spanish music was utilised perceptively and with great effect throughout, picking up the pace where it otherwise might have dropped; the dance was beautifully designed by Natalie Haslam, and was emotionally wrought and performed with sincerity by the cast.
And yet this fierce energy and passion present in the music and dance of the production seemed frustratingly lacking in certain scenes within the play. While the delivery of the verse was technically impeccable and handled with confidence by the cast, the rhythmic rise and fall of the Spanish music and dance seemed not to touch the words of the characters. The push and pull between intense passion and unbearable melancholy, between moments of painful loss and overwhelming gratification seemed left unexplored. The tone of the play remained in a middle ground and moments of crescendo became disappointingly anticlimactic as a consequence. Mercutio’s death in particular seemed ill-handled and clumsy, and ultimately the tragic death of Ross’ charismatic presence lost impact as a result. It seemed at times that the superimposed beat and rhythm generated by the clapping and dancing of the surrounding ensemble became an artificial substitute or aid for what should have been organically developed within the performances themselves.
Despite this, the production was a triumph in almost every sense. Strong in performance, direction, set, sound and lighting design, Littler succeeded in creating a world in which the tension between love and death could be explored. Seemingly antithetical concepts, Romeo and Juliet surge inevitably towards both love and death and, in the final crescendo of the play, the mutual suicide of the two lovers reveals that they are in fact inextricably tied.