Midnight Romeo and Juliet at the Globe Theatre

I love theatre - both watching it and performing it. And I like a lot of Shakespeare - I used to live close enough to Stratford to see a lot of RSC productions, and now that I live in Oxford there's an embarrassment of riches when it comes to open-air summer shows (the Bodleian's Globe Theatre on Tour production of Much Ado About Nothing was a real highlight). I've seen Romeo and Juliet live at least once, I think twice, and seen a couple of films of it. But I've only been to the Globe once before (to see Jamie Parker's Henry V, which was brilliant), and I've never been a groundling.

So to see the midnight performance of Romeo and Juliet, standing, at the Globe, featuring (to my surprise) an actor I already rate highly: Edward Hogg, as Romeo, certainly had the potential to be a good night. And wow, did it deliver. 

The production is completely wacky - director Daniel Kramer is currently the artistic director of the ENO and this whole show felt dramatic enough to be an opera without the singing. The comedy was laugh out loud funny, the tragedy was (for me at least) sobbing silently from the audience. The actors turn the dial all the way to 11, and keep it there, and it makes sense. These characters have to say and do some pretty ridiculous things, and I feel like a lot of trying to direct Romeo and Juliet well must be trying to portray why and how. This is particularly hard when your leads are in their 30s, not their teens. The first flush of young love excuses a lot of their stupid decisions, so why doesn't this couple know better?

The cast spend the whole play in clown-like white facepaint and a variety of painted-on expressions, which become more and more obscured and smudged as they love, fight, mourn, and die. The masked ball is full-on fancy dress, so that Capulet is wandering around lecherously in a dinosaur suit, singing karaoke YMCA, and the nurse is dress as Elizabeth I. It's not for everyone, but you'll find no complaints here.

 Mercutio ( Golda Rosheuvel ) and Benvolio ( Jonathan Livingstone )

Mercutio (Golda Rosheuvel) and Benvolio (Jonathan Livingstone)

Edward Hogg is stunning as Romeo. Of all the actors, and they are all very, very, good, he is the only one who I really forgot was acting, which is surely the gold standard. Watching him go to pieces on stage was a truly harrowing experience, more so I think than any other show I've seen. Kirsty Bushell, as Juliet, was funnier, perhaps a bit hammy on occasion, but I could excuse that for the sheer exuberant, hectic life she brought to the part. She made sense of Juliet's lines for an adult in new, exciting ways, and her energy kept all her scenes alive with interest.

Honestly, there was too much going on in this show for me to cover all the bits I loved and give you a real idea of how it was to watch it, so I'll just pick out a few cool things. Kramer did clever things with combining mirrored scenes so they alternated lines and used the same spaces: Romeo and Juliet getting married twinned with Mercutio and Tybalt facing off; Romeo talking to the Friar while Juliet talks to the Nurse. It added pace and really emphasised the connections.

Mercutio was played by a woman, sort of 'one of the lads' but still feminine, treading a complicated line of friendship and enmity and desire. There was so much to unpack and she has such strange speeches (the Queen Mab one for instance) and Golda Rosheuvel managed it really well. 

The Capulets were like some kind of mafia family - the father was a terrifying mob boss, his wife a complicit and complex woman, Tybalt a psychopathic heavy. It meant all the scenes had an undercurrent of violence, and it made Capulet's abandonment of Juliet make sense as he had needed to secure some kind of political alliance with Paris. It also made Juliet into a protected, privileged, cosseted only child, explaining her naivety and awkwardness. 

There was a cleverness in how Juliet goes from being incredibly buttoned-up and shy even around her family (when her mother and the nurse are talking about Paris) to later unconsciously mimicking the way Romeo and his friends talk bawdily about sex and lust. Whereas Romeo is shown to be mostly putting that attitude on, and once he is alone or with Juliet shows himself to be really very young and tender and sweet, until he remembers that he's 'not supposed to be'.

I honestly can't understand why this production has had such bad reviews (seriously, one or two stars from almost everywhere, really bad). Yes, it's unusual and irreverent, and the performances are over the top. But surely every theatre critic has seen 60 boring, standard R+Js? Surely this is refreshingly different? I thought it was clever, funny, beautiful to look at, and emotionally devastating to watch. I definitely didn't think I could cry at Romeo and Juliet. It's not like I didn't know what was going to happen. But watching Edward Hogg and Kirsty Bushell put themselves through that hope and anguish and love and death was a truly special experience for me. I honestly pity the people who went and couldn't let themselves just be carried along in the crazy emotional whirl of it all.

This is probably too late for anyone to get tickets as it's only on until Saturday and mostly sold out, but if you want to see a Youtube clip of some of the show and some positive audience reactions, it's here.