‘Ooh, he were good, that Mercutio! Shame he had to die, really.’ – overheard on the tube home from Action to the Word’s revamp of Romeo and Juliet at the Camden People’s Theatre. Martin McCreadie’s Mercutio was indeed captivatingly energetic, but worthy of a stay of execution? His relentless violence and sheer sexuality typified this reading of the Bard’s tale which grabs the audience by the throat and shouts it into submission.
Director Alexandra Spencer-Jones has created a dark urban world in which to re-imagine the star-crossed lovers, framed by a CSI-style debrief which set the stark tone. The issue with any change of setting is the inevitable contrast between spoken dialogue and its context. The ball becomes a cheesy family disco, the Apothecary becomes a drug-dealer – all this doesn’t change the sense of the drama, and in fact probably helps us relate more with the text. However, in terms of acting delivery we were given cut-and-thrust hyper-realism largely at the expense of Shakespeare’s high-flown poetic verse. I feel this is a jarring contradiction without any positive aspect, since the result is a piece in which people shout and fight for two and a half hours.
The jewels at the centre were the lovers themselves, played by Eddie Usher and Violet Ryder. Ryder’s Juliet was strong and defeminised, with her hipster glasses, baggy t-shirts and legs akimbo. She was controlled in her falling in love, very modern and touching in her self-doubt. Usher on the other hand fell head-over-heels and did it admirably, but shone more and more as the body-count rose and his conscience contorted. The general roaring and stamping may have left me cold, but Usher’s crushed squeaks proved to be the real emotive force of his performance.
Despite the ‘balcony scene’ and even a few laughs in the first half, Action to the Word have presented a stark and violent realisation of a much-done text, justifiable but ultimately alienating in its uncompromising bleakness. Fidelity isn’t my issue – there’s a whole lot of violence in the writing – it’s just that I don’t want to sit through a harrowing evening of grief and bloodlust.