Tom Holland’s Romeo and Juliet is ‘lifeless’

Take the scene where Romeo first catches sight of Juliet at a party: here Holland alone is on stage, gazing at Amewudah-Rivers on the screen, where she is being streamed from the unprepossessing locale of the Duke of York’s theatre lobby – not exactly a great stand-in for the Capulets’ ballroom. In the process, what should be an electric moment of love at first sight is divested of its spark.

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Indeed, cameras aside, it’s noticeable how little the actors are allowed to organically interact: in other moments, they’re made to use those microphones and/or stand side by side, facing out to the audience, declaiming their lines, not looking at each other. It makes events often unbearably static, to the point of it being a slog, despite the significant textual cuts that have reduced it to a relatively brisk two-hour-and-15-minute running time. The nadir comes in the completely undynamic rendering of the climactic mid-way fight scene, which sees the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt: here there is no physicality whatsoever, just a snap blackout, before the characters magically appear again newly bloodied.

A glum mood

With his black-box set, constant, sinisterly humming sound design, and stark lighting, Lloyd seems to also want to make Romeo and Juliet into some kind of nihilistic horror – draining the love story of the light and shade that it should have before it draws to its tragic ending. Holland’s performance particularly suffers, you sense, from being in hock to this determinedly downbeat aesthetic. He has definite stage presence, but a habit of acting out one mood at a time, rather than making his Romeo convincingly psychologically rounded, and towards the end he is reduced to snarling disaffection, Romeo’s emotional tenderness all but forgotten.

Relative newcomer Amewudah-Rivers, by contrast, transcends her glum surroundings and is the real saving grace: she has a conversational command of the verse common to the best Shakespearean actors, as well as a natural wit, which is deployed particularly well in the early courtship scenes. Matching her is former Doctor Who assistant Freema Agyeman, a radiantly warm, comic delight as Juliet’s Nurse. Indeed it is Amewudah-Rivers and Agyeman’s scenes together, in which they banter with sisterly chemistry, that are truly this production’s beating heart – which is not what Shakespeare may have intended, but there you go.

Rumours have suggested the show will transfer to New York, and I hope, whatever the real deficiencies of this Romeo and Juliet, that the Holland effect might inspire a new generation of theatregoers, not to mention Shakespeare lovers. Except unfortunately, this feels like self-hating theatre, that believes screens are all and has no real faith in the inherent value of its own art form. Think of it more as an immersive satire on the state of the arts, perhaps, and it hits the spot rather better. 

Romeo and Juliet is at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 3 August.

★★☆☆☆

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