The astonishing Royal Shakespeare Company production of “Romeo and Juliet” opens at night with a young man in a hooded jacket, fiddling with earphones as if listening to a museum guide while wandering the darkened streets.
The docent’s words -- Shakespeare’s Prologue -- are quickly drowned out by the clatter of cold weaponry on hard pavement as daggers, switchblades, chains, stilettos and other instruments of mayhem echo off Verona’s cobblestones.
Members of two opposing households have been brawling. Just as one fighter is about to be torched, the old Prince appears, furious at this latest eruption in the feud that roils his quiet city. He forces the young delinquents to disarm, which they noisily do as the mysterious fellow watches from the shadows. Despite the Prince’s efforts, the machinery of violence will not be stilled.
Rupert Goold’s staging is not an updating of Shakespeare’s tragedy of star-crossed lovers, though it does indulge in a bit of time-travel. It’s what the Bard of Avon might have written after seeing Jerome Robbins and Company’s “West Side Story” rather than the other way around. For this production seethes with all sorts of passion -- blood lust and adolescent sexual hunger chief among them.
Down to Skivvies
Goold, whose ear-splitting, blood-drenched “Macbeth” was seen recently at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, goes for extreme effects, stripping these lords and ladies of their finery.
Juliet favors black high-top sneakers. Lady Capulet (Christine Entwisle), wigless, prowls the house looking like a slattern. Nurse (Noma Dumezweni) smokes a churchwarden pipe and rolls her eyes with unmasked insouciance.
On the Montague side, there’s Romeo in what looks like American Apparel. Mercutio (Jonjo O’Neill), in a gold lame cape, delivers the Queen Mab speech with spectacular dash. When he dies at Tybalt’s hand, he does so with a swagger.
The lovers’ abettor, Friar Laurence, is played by Forbes Masson as a reluctant accomplice. Richard Katz’s Capulet spittingly renounces daughter Juliet when she refuses to marry Paris, emphasizing the bald cruelty in the language.
Kids Next Door
As the lovers, Sam Troughton and Mariah Gale are not the air-brushed models we have come to expect, but normal-looking, hot-blooded kids (Goold makes sure we remember that Juliet is not yet 14 when her story unfolds). Troughton is more scrappy than suave; Gale more gamine than glamorous.
Inevitably, the production flags a bit in the long second half. Falling in love is more interesting, after all, than dying.
Nevertheless, Goold and his designers -- Tom Scutt, sets and costumes, and especially Howard Harrison’s spectral lighting -- make this a truly dark and stormy tale. And those fights, staged by Terry King, may scare the heck out of you.
“Romeo and Juliet” is running through Aug. 13 in repertory with four more Shakespeare plays at the Park Avenue Armory, Park Avenue and East 67th Street. Information: +1-212-721-6500; http://www.lincolncenterfestival.org
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(Jeremy Gerard is an editor and critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)