By Conor O’Neill
Awarded Theatre of the Year by The Stage magazine, Belfast’s Lyric Theatre kicks off its spring season with Shakespeare’s much loved Romeo & Juliet. This modern adaptation sees the Montagues and Capulets squabble it out, not in the 14th century but in today’s Verona. This take on the well told tale sees the two families as rival haute couture fashion houses. In keeping with the fashionista theme the invite asks guests to turn up in monochrome attire. There’s a first for everything!
From taking our seats it was obvious this was going to be a sumptuous affair. Set designer Robin People’s set is truly pleasing on the eye. Yet, it is easily adapted. From Verona town centre, to ballroom, bedroom and mausoleum, this luxurious set morphs into each scene with minimum effort and maximum effect.
Confession time: I’ve never been a fan of Shakespeare. Apart from mandatory reading of As You Like It from my school days, I’ve always avoided the bard’s work. It has always perplexed me. But script editor Anne Bailie’s adaptation is more than palatable. I’ll go further than that and state I really enjoyed it. Yes, there are more than a few antiquated terms and turns of phrase, but this production is easily followed by Philistines such as myself. ANother thing worthy of note, this production has little airs or graces about it; the dialect is pure Northern Irish, a charming little touch making it even more accessible.
Director Philip Crawford, along with fight director make sure this show is not all soliloquies and overtly romantic gestures. It’s a muscular, testosterone fuelled piece of theatre focusing on young love, family ties and murderous rivalry.
Adam Gillian’s Romeo is brooding and menacing in equal measure, that is, when he’s not in the arms of his lover. Juliet, played by Emma Dougan, is forceful of character with a sullen charm that is sure to delight. These two of course feature in all the main scenes but their stories are punched along by an assortment of equally talented actors – and how nice it is to see that the majority of them are Northern Irish. A talent pool the theatre has been developing as part of its Lyric Drama Studio.
This 16 strong cast’s credentials are not only easy to spot on the stage but their collective CVs in the programme leave little wonder regarding their talent. The ones that really stand out are Ray Sesay’s Friar Laurence, Laura Hughes’ Nurse, Thomas Finnegan’s Mercutio and Finnian Garbutt’s Benvolio. Yet, it seems unfair to not name the rest of the cast. You will undoubtedly, on seeing the show, remark on others I haven’t the space to name.
Yet the show’s success is not simply borne of beautiful words, cleverly acted and skilfully directed; the lighting and sound design play an essential part. Sometimes lighting director James McFetridge has the stage lit up like the proverbial Christmas tree, while at other the light fades leaving a character or scene barely shrouded in light. Same too with the sound; from modern dance to a solitary church bell, the scenes are matched perfectly by composer and sound director Chris Warner.
The story’s arc and ending are well known, if not by those who have read Shakespeare’s work, but by the seemingly infinite number of popular culture references, but even to those with a degree in classical theatre, seeing the performance move its way towards the powerful and fateful ending is a lesson in great theatre itself. At just over two hours running time, this production of Romeo & Juliet is sure to please the most ardent fan and the novice in equal measure.
Romeo & Juliet runs at the Lyric theatre up to and including March 5th, 2023.
For booking details visit http://www.lyrictheatre.co.uk or simply phone the box office on 02890 381081
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