Siege Theatre approach the text of the oft-performed Romeo & Juliet with a strong concept. Their production opens with prisoners milling around a courtyard and guards watching over them. A new inmate arrives and her books are stripped from her, with the texts being read aloud in jest by her peers. The group settle on Romeo & Juliet, with the opening scene playing out. It is a jarring start, piquing the audience's curiosity. The production then morphs into the story of Romeo & Juliet, performed in medieval attire, with the new inmate co-opted in as Juliet.
I quite like this as the central idea for this production. It neatly taps into several other Shakespeare plays, particularly The Taming of the Shrew, which sets up the action of the play as being an artifice, a play-within-a-play for the benefit of Christopher Sly. By focusing the play, initially, on Juliet, this production manages to steer the text away from the gender imbalance that can sometimes make Romeo & Juliet a frustrating watch. This version is at its strongest when it strives to approach a scene from a new perspective. The best is the balcony scene, which is played through the audience. The production comes alive and engages with us as Romeo has to clamber up through the seating. There are moments dotted throughout the evening where an interesting idea or engaging interpretation leads to some great theatre.
There are some stand-out performances in an accomplished cast. Madeleine Lloyd-Jones as Juliet and Alex Lushington as Romeo make effective lovers, thankfully having a strong chemistry together. They are ably supported by Charlie Morgan, who makes a fabulous nurse, a wry, clever creation who is not above exhibiting some well-placed fury in this production, and Joseph Hartshorn, whose Friar Laurence is an approachable, likeable figure. Martha Ibbotson also stands out as an effectively gender-reversed Tybalt.
The cast use the space well, with the scenes pleasingly staged and making full use of the space the company has. The fights, choreographed by Kieran Donnelly, are surprisingly impactful (leading to a few gasps from the audience). As the director Michael Speight brings the skills that comes from regular shows at the
I'm not sure that Siege Theatre quite did enough on the night to make me fall back in love with Romeo & Juliet (I've studied the play several times, seen numerous version of it, and even been in a particularly regrettable version as a teenager). But they did enough with this production that it felt like an intelligent, nuanced take on the play, held together by some strong acting throughout the cast. It feels the perfect way to cap off another year of the Oxford Shakespeare Festival.