Jeremy Malies in Surrey
7 February 2018
The feud between the two families in Romeo and Juliet often tempts young directors into flamboyant choices for delineating the Montagues and the Capulets, and the play can descend into a ‘concept’ production with little investigation of central themes. Over recent years I’ve seen the vendetta concern Mods and Rockers, Protestants and Catholics on the Falls Road, Israelis and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and even rival soccer fans. In Charlotte Conquest’s site-specific production for the Guildford Shakespeare Company at the town’s Holy Trinity Church, the divide is nothing more than plain old-fashioned class rivalry so allowing us to focus on the essence of the plot.
Ricky Oakley as Romeo. Photo credit: Matt Pereira.
The setting is Georgian as befits the age of the church. Visual highpoints are use of its gilt rood screen and filigree work to silhouette the adult characters at the ball and as the perfect framing device for Juliet’s awakening in the crypt. Both the lovers are acutely aware of the properties of light, making constant references to their luminous surroundings. Peter Harrison does them proud with his lighting design, especially when the sepulchral gloom in the chancel is suffused with warm primary tones.
As Juliet, Lucy Pearson proves aware of textual hints that this is a youngster with self-possession. She manages to be ardent and skittish at the same time. Even her most celebrated moments (notably as she takes the potion) give the impression of complete spontaneity and the actor brings out new unexpected meanings through unusual inflection.
As Mercutio, Jack Whitham negotiates the church’s difficult acoustic in a fresh and limpid Queen Mab speech. It may all come down to pitch of voice but as Romeo, Ricky Oakley fares less well and there is a by-rote quality to his delivery even when he should be bantering with his peers as they tease him. But he is personable and convincing when pondering his banishment from Verona.
Television character actress Harriet Thorpe (no stranger to Shakespeare with performances at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre) is the star vehicle as Nurse. A natural comedian, she has a light touch with the broad humour, brings depth to what can often be a caricature of earthiness and suggests real rapport with Juliet.
“Two hours’ traffic of our stage”? I don’t go to Shakespeare with a stopwatch but I soon know when I’m bored and Juliet frequently speaks of time not flying fast enough for her. Even with choral interludes from community singers, the pace never flags.
Charlotte Conquest’s productions are always dependable but never formulaic and she avoids many obvious choices offered by the church setting for more original and difficult options. Working with a company of actors right across the age spectrum, she can make one of the play’s central points with conviction. It is the old who let the young down in this story. The Guildford Shakespeare Company has added to its formidable body of work that now stretches over twelve years.