Review: Romeo And Juliet – New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich

Our destiny may be written in the stars and, for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, it seems their fate is certainly being guided by the wider cosmos. Suitably for this pair of ‘star-cross’d lovers’, Night Light Theatre’s thrilling adaptation, moves the action, from its traditional Verona setting, onto the celestial plane; the fateful couple guided across an astrological astrolabe by spirits, sprites, and the heavenly bodies.

It’s a magical, almost dreamlike, world where actors and musicians blend with puppets to create a world of rich and vivid storytelling.

This is a Romeo and Juliet unlike any other, condensed into 85 minutes but losing none of the drama or impact of this oft-told tale. Rich Rusk’s adaptation and direction retains the power of Shakespeare’s verse but manages that difficult task of making it sound fresh and contemporary without resorting to ‘dumbing down’. It is testament to the power of the production that one doesn’t actually notice the cuts as the dramatic narrative is so utterly engrossing.

While Romeo and Juliet (Christopher Tester and Samantha Barron) are very much passionate flesh and blood – hormonal youth, rampant and defiant – they are led by more ethereal elders. Parents of both Capulet and Montague clans, the sage friar and the impish nurse all brought to live with impressive puppetry. This mix of live action and puppets works well, reinforcing the timeless quality of doomed young love but also providing a nice touch of cross-generational conflict.

The ethereal setting also frees the production from traditional confines of story-telling with imaginative effect. Gone are the traditional sword fights, here the brawling youth fight with balls of light, more akin to Star Wars than traditional Shakespeare, but a device that serves well in this timeless production. The fateful poison draught still remains and, as fate moves the young lovers to the inevitable tragedy, the mood darkens and the true power of this story to still move an audience after 400 years becomes apparent.

Night Light Theatre’s production is visually stunning; a faultless celestial design by Rhys Jarman, one of the finest atmospheric plots by Matt O’Leary, Dom Coyote’s evocative, Gregorian chant-based, score, and impressive puppets from Max Humphries, combine to provide a timeless world, both classical and modern, realistic and dreamlike.

To tell such a well-known tale, when most people know the ending, in a new, fresh and utterly gripping manner is a challenge for any company but Night Light manage that near impossible task of making this seem like a piece of new writing. For those new to Shakespeare it is a wonderful introduction that will draw them into the richness of the Bard’s work; for existing fans they will revel in the sheer inventiveness and clarity of the production.

This is one Romeo and Juliet that you will fall passionately in love with. Simply heavenly.

Review originally written for The Public Reviews.

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