Tomahawk’s production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is first a hoot – and then a tear jerker.
The predominantly young audience (many from overseas) watching the play within the historic walls of Oxford Castle were riveted by the power of the story. Even if Shakespeare’s language was not perfectly understood, the conflicts and ideals presented were universal.
Alex Nicholls’ production set a cracking pace, which never faltered or lost its way, as the tragedy unfolded. The initial mood of authority, order and control melded humorously into street scenes of ribaldry and drunkenness.
When darkness fell, boy power ruled. The triad of Romeo (Remi King), Mercutio (Adam Potterton) and Benvolio (Ivo Gruev) rocked. Together they crash the Masked Ball given by the Montague’s sworn enemies, the Capulets. While Juliet (Jennifer Robinson) is smitten, fiery Tybalt (Billy Morton) is enraged.
Fight coach James Reilly ensured some terrific spats, in which mortal blows are struck. As events spiral downwards, the power of the acting carried the audience from laughter and slapstick to tears.
Juliet’s freshness of delivery was always intelligent and psychologically spot on. Just watch her talking to herself so artlessly, unaware of our unseen eyes. Romeo too, is believable. His transformation from playboy to tragic hero with blood on his hands was portrayed with eloquence and ease to a modern audience.
Along with musical director Francisco Vera’s wonderful music, unlikely characters tracked the play’s emotional depths. Benvolio’s exuberance and anguish locked the audience’s attention. They were fascinated by his unerring physical clowning - and by the authenticity of his grief.
Lady Capulet’s socialite brittleness was wonderfully captured by Fleur Yerbury Hodgeson – her heartlessness and ambition dismissing Juliet’s plaintive appeal for support against an unwanted (and bigamous marriage) to bumptious Paris (Frazz Jarvis). Lord Montague’s smooth subtleties could be poignard sharp, while Chris Walter’s beautiful, mellifluous speaking voice was used to great effect in another role within the play – the decent, well intentioned Friar Lawrence.
Rachel Wilmhurst’s Nurse was cheerfully uninhibited in the Capulet household, sure of her place – and in the affections of the child she had raised since birth.
Phoebe Knight’s lively choreography, Florence McGlynn’s costumes and Ben Downing’s ingenious set contributed to the visual spectacle.
The pity of youth and hopes squandered brings to mind Phillip Larkin. Yet Shakespeare’s insights into generational conflict, parental ambition and teenage angst held the contemporary audience to the last flamenco chord – and the fluttering of Oxford Castle’s flag in the gathering darkness.