HUGH SULLIVAN reviews The Duke’s Theatre Company production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet at Fairlight Hall.

Down at the Capulet family crypt in Verona which doubles as Friar Laurence’s cell, the pile of bodies is mounting. Tybalt’s corpse has been there since early in Act Three. Juliet has been brought in by her grieving family, drugged up but happily still alive and awaiting miraculous revival in the arms of her new husband Romeo. Disappointed suitor County Paris, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, gets dispatched. Then, of course, it’s the turn of Romeo and Juliet themselves. 

Fortunately, the cleverly constructed set of wooden decking that provides the stage for the travelling Duke’s Theatre Company presentation of Romeo and Juliet is designed for just such a body count. Trap doors in the floor have been opening and shutting throughout the play – first, for comical effect giving Romeo’s hyper-manic mate Mercutio the opportunity to fool around, eating a giant lettuce upside down; later, in the gathering darkness of both sky above and mood below, allowing the Friar to shuffle the inert bodies around in vain pursuit of a happy ending.

CREDIT: Colin J. Smith

The Duke’s Theatre is a new professional company that has no public or government funding and aims to sustain itself purely from box office takings on a travelling circuit. This inaugural production premiered at the Brighton Open Air Theatre on 14th July and reached the gardens of Fairlight Hall, its tenth venue on the road, for just two performances last week. It was rewarded (on the Thursday at least) by a sunny evening and a large enthusiastic audience of all ages in the sumptuous Hall grounds. 

One of the plus-points for traditional school and amateur productions of Shakespeare’s tragedy is the breadth of cast – nearly 20 speaking parts, not to mention a host of brawling Capulet and Montague hangers-on, torchbearers, pages, watchmen etc. That’s obviously unsustainable for a professional troupe needing to pay its way. So we got just six performers, doubling, trebling and quadrupling their roles, and requiring the audience to accept both cross-gender and cross-generation portrayals: Rachael Garnett, for instance, appears first as Tybalt, then as Paris, finally as Lord Montague, gets skewered twice by Romeo’s sword, and never plays her own sex at all.

Six performers, doubling, trebling and quadrupling their roles, and requiring the audience to accept both cross-gender and cross-generation portrayals

Jonty Peach as Romeo veers incoherently between the wayward passions and impulses of confused youth: you can see exactly why the Prince of Verona would decide to exile him to Mantua till he reaches the years of discretion. By contrast, Imogen Opie (Juliet, though occasionally donning a flak-jacket to portray another Montague hot-blood, Benvolio, and also selling her husband his fatal poison as the Apothecary) gives a performance of great clarity. Playing a 13-year-old nymphette who (you could imagine) would in four centuries’ time be breathlessly swiping her Instagram screen, she finds resources within herself to cope with, though ultimately fails to evade, the patriarchal mayhem around her.

The production’s excellent souvenir programme contained a brief but entertaining history of travelling theatre in and since Shakespearian times. One element was plague avoidance. We seem to have come full circle.

The Duke’s Theatre Company has travelled on to Wales, Lancashire and other English venues for the rest of its summer run. They aim to be back in 2022 with a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

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