The Lent term School play, Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’, runs for two more nights in the Speech Hall this week. This is a drama that can work much better in schools than in the professional theatre, simply because of age, but even so it was inspired casting to have Libby Richards as Juliet: old enough to bring the remarkable maturity needed for this girl, who is brave enough to plunge the dagger into her own body and to express her sexuality in sublimely erotic love poetry, yet also able to look innocent enough to pass for ‘not yet 14’. The crucial moment where she is abandoned by father (‘hang, beg,starve, die in the streets); mother (‘I have done with thee’) and Nurse (‘I think it best you marry with the County’) and fully becomes a woman, was very strong. All her long speeches struck the perfect balance of sounding spontaneous despite having been meticulously rehearsed. As her father, Harry Adorian brought out the tenderness deep below the bluster and Kimi Zoet was very convincing as a chillingly sneering, neurotic mother. Ellie Williamson’s Nurse had tremendous energy, her relationship with Juliet very convincing and her dilemma over having to advise bigamy over fidelity to a secret marriage was palpable. This part is often caricatured, but not under Martin Allison. The other key Capulet is Tybalt, given cocky arrogance and real bravura by Seb Leman. The play is full of the language of fencing and Seb led the sword fights with tremendous panache: the director’s insistence on several specialist fight rehearsals paid dividends for the audience’s enjoyment.
Orlando Taylor also has the mix of acting experience and youthful looks to be a convincing Romeo. He was not afraid to show that this is indeed the story of ‘Juliet and her Romeo’ and that he is the more passive of the two. The director ensured Romeo’s many lines about fate (such as ‘I am Fortune’s fool’) were given due weight as was the disastrous turning point in which Romeo changes from lover to avenger by placing it just before the interval. An especially powerful idea here was to have the dead Tybalt fall on top of Romeo, emphasising the ‘Liebestod’ element of the play that anticipates Wagner’s ‘Tristan’. His deep grief in the tomb was a fine piece of acting but never clouded the blank verse.
The director (who was given tremendous support by Assistant Director Erin McCombe) was given a great space in which to place the actors by Mark Jenkins’s huge and imposing set. The enigmatic black cloth over a tomb-like shape seemed to imply that Death hovers jealously over the lovers from the very start. The Montagues are given little to do by Shakespeare but Ollie Taylor was a dignified father and Tessa Lenselink a fine contrast to Lady Capulet. Ali Johnston was the best Benvolio I have ever seen: a true friend to Romeo, a long-suffering butt of Mercutio’s self-loathing humour and, above all, a wise head on young shoulders, whom the Prince can trust as a disinterested witness of the brawl.
The Prince (Freddy Austin) grew in stature through the first night and held the stage at the end majestically, despite his best line (‘A glooming peace this morning with it brings’) being given to the Chorus (Ellie Smith), whose eloquent verse speaking was the more effective for Martin Allison’s inspired idea to surprise us by giving us some mime and dramatic action before a delayed first chorus. Such touches showed the director’s years of experience in thinking about how to stage this tragedy. It should be noted, also, that as well as the two dozen actors there were an equal number involved in staging this superb production and, if there were room here, all fifty would get a deserved name-check. Paris was played as a pale fall-guy (inevitable if his death scene is cut) by the excellent Henry de Villiers and the Prince’s other kinsman by Weston Lord. For many theatre-goers Mercutio is the play’s most fascinating character and Weston had the audience in the palm of his bawdy hand with his charisma and wit. Throughout, the director ensured the verse-speaking was clearly intelligible and not rushed but Weston combined his vocal acting with really imaginative physical acting, using his height, flexibility and eyes to great effect. His Queen Mab speech, like a cadenza in a concerto, began with breathtaking and imaginative delicacy and was paced towards great dynamic contrast. Mercutio’s death remained a ‘jest’ to even beyond the last minute: daringly so, but with devastating effect, given that most pupils were seeing the play for the first time.
Perhaps the securest of all the performances came from Cameron Scheijde as the Friar: with his look of horror-struck premonition as he blew out the candle; his desperate ‘I dare no longer stay’; his close but never improper relationship with Romeo; his observation about man’s ‘grace and rude will’; and his doomed desire to turn the two ‘households’ rancour to pure love’. Cameron is one of the most intelligent actors ever to tread the Cranleigh boards and (especially in the absence of the Friar John scene) cut a poignantly lonely figure as the wise but well-meaningly misguided ‘ghostly confessor’. He seemed the central pole around which the production was based. There were over a dozen other excellent performers, including Toby Chesser, who held his nerve for his solo song and the musicians, masterminded by MD Olivia Chesser were key to the atmosphere, notably when Beth Porter’s eloquent recorder solo was used to accompany the sonnet spoken by the two lovers. These paired scenes were handled very sensitively: of course there has to be more physical contact than Shakespeare dared with two boy actors, but the repeated stage image of Romeo and Juliet kneeling reminded us that the sacrament of marriage is central to their relationship: Juliet’s bravery in taking the drug is not just to be with Romeo but to avoid the sin of bigamy, which Shakespeare makes seem a more damning prospect even than suicide.
The number of Shakespeare productions at Cranleigh in the last third of a century is, I think, a dozen, and I wonder if in a few years’ time I will be able to name-drop having seen Weston Lord’s Mercutio as I can having seen Patrick Marber as Lear’s Fool. But the real star of this show was its self-effacing director, whose judicious cutting and dynamic direction brought a poetic drama composed in language over 400 years’ old to a school audience without resorting to fatuous ‘relevance’ of setting or any other gimmicks. And for the three sets currently studying the play at GCSE level, they now have a version in their minds to take them (while writing in the same hall as they witnessed it) back into the theatre, not just to the playscript. An A* production.