A passage of death-mark'd love

Romeo and Juliet

Stafford Gatehouse

****

Icarus Theatre Collective, founded in 2003-4, aspires, like its namesake, to fly close to the sun. It has youth on its side. It has massive touring stamina. It has programming flair. 

Romeo and Juliet, seen most recently in the Midlands at Stafford, and due next week (16-17 April) at Leicester's De Montfort Hall – seek it out, you won't be disappointed - is by no means Icarus's first Shakespeare play.

Lewendel's revived or revitalised Othello – his Macbeth and (Greek chorus-manner staging of) Hamlet both won accolades and high-starred ratings - tours this autumn to Northern Ireland and Scotland, and can be seen with Hedda Gabler in the Midlands at the Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury next February and the Stafford Gatehouse next March.  

But does this energetic young mid-scale cooperative, which takes risks in exploring ‘the harsh, brutal side of classical and modern drama', embraces the ‘post modern, surreal and theatre of the absurd' and sets out to explore the visceral, unspeakable, kinetic and dynamic, have the raw acting talent to go with it?  

The answer, judging by its current twin touring productions of R&J and Spring Awakening (reviewed HERE,   and by lauded previous offerings, including Journey's End, Vincent in Brixton, Albert's Boy, and a landmark piece Rip Her to Shreds, about a gay teenager in 1980s Northern Ireland), is an unequivocal ‘Yes'. 

In both the present Angst-ridden shows (their themed similarities mesh well, like the current ‘Free Spirits' opera tour – Berg, Janáček etc. - by David Pountney's WNO), Icarus's actors capture to near-perfection the poignant, risqué, fiery, vitriolic, painful and essentially doomed nature of the plot material (‘Tales of mutilation, rape and incest are not anathema to us'); while the company's founder and inspiration Max Lewendel, who directs both, displays insight, conceptual coherence and an uncompromising, challenging approach that together produce, almost invariably, electrifying results.  

The casts may change, but not the quality. Significant in this Romeo and Juliet were the wonderful raw urgency, touching naiveté and almost Tybalt-like combativeness of Kaiden Dubois's Romeo, and the sheer poetic beauty of Nicole Anderson's Juliet.  

Anderson brings a particular kind of voice, certainly childish but also initially potentially irritating, in a Fenella Fielding kind of way. But as the lines pile up (‘I must hear from thee every day in the hour, For in a minute there are many days'; ‘banished!' There is no end, no limit, measure, bound, In that word's death; no words can that woe sound.') in exchanges with the Nurse, her mother, Romeo himself, one senses the beauty and innocence of everything she utters.

Believably a young teen, Anderson epitomises, more than some Juliets, the sheer antithesis of this maiden and the bloody, uncultivated, boorish male-dominated society. Is she allowed books? Maybe not. She learns life through her own intuition-filled exploration. But what she also brings home are the astounding, endless subtleties by which Shakespeare distinguishes between the dictions of his two equal-passioned lovers. 

The start of a tragic romance between Verona's teenage lovers among the warring Capulets and Montagues

The fights (Ronin Traynor) are all terrific, finely judged for the space: we get one right at the start, along with the quipping about maidenhead that flippantly but ominously anticipate the central romance. Zachary Holton (a naturally cast Duncan in Icarus's recent Macbeth) speaks Escalus as well as he does Juliet's father: taming Tybalt or overbearing his daughter, very much the traditional clan paterfamilias. Georgina Periam, an actress of tangible and endlessly varied talents, delivers a forceful, dignified, rather admirable, then outraged Lady Capulet with wonderful  pursed assurance yielding to polished beastliness.  

But there was a jinx on this show – at Stafford, at least. In the absence of David McLaughlin (Spring Awakening's always commanding Melchior) Mercutio was taken on by an understudy – none less than Periam once more, whose triumph in this added role was perhaps no surprise (at a time when Cassius and Julius Caesar are being played by women in Phyllida Lloyd's east London Shakespeare).  

Periam is an actress exuding authority, breadth, depth. She could play Lear's Fool, and I daresay Titus Andronicus (not just Tamara) too. Mercutio's Queen Mab speech simply soared to the rafters; his death, below Romeo's arm, was searing (though to toy I think - with dubbing her ‘Mercutia' was a disaster: a female Mercutio would require far more subtle preparation and redefinition). 

Likewise, McLaughlin being absent, Holton was forced - though less persuasively – to take over as an Irish burr Friar Laurence, urging the cherished lad to Mantua (‘not body's death, but body's banishment'), and bearing more than a slight resemblance to the Bishop of London. Reading the role that night, he was really quite skilful in concealing the fact, or preventing it obtruding. 

Visually Kayden Dubois's not-headed youngster is winning. His gestures are inventive; he can raise or lower tension at will. Romeo's scenes with the Nurse were a triumph. And he delivered countless magical lines. ‘Peace, Mercutio, peace: thou talk'st of nothing'; ‘Every cat and dog And little mouse, every unworthy thing / Live here in heaven and may look on her; But Romeo may not…' But he also whined somewhat early on: a kindly hand and extra voice coaching would surely render even better Dubois' promising, involving, heightened delivery.  

Or let be….for by later stages, ultimately the beautifully wry parting speech ‘How oft when men are at the point of death….Come, bitter conduct, come, unsavoury guide' any criticism had been utterly allayed.  

Adam Purnell's set, a kind of forlorn palazzo-cum-ruin (the Wedekind set reversed, I gather) atop which Juliet awaits her all too momentary lover, works wonderfully, though is underused. Tybalt can lurk there, or a patient Benvolio (Christopher Smart), and a jutting platform before it helps raise much of the action; but the benign-or-daunting-or-both château needed, one felt, more specific, active use.  

Kate Unwin's costumes were more mixed: Romeo (though in curiously sexless hose), Juliet and Benvolio seemed fine, and Lady Capulet's reds added stature; but Capulet's tunic and prodding knees looked curious. The nurse's, though it mattered little, needed more variety and changes.  

Holton's lighting design (with Dan Saggars) was terrific, especially in its laser-like white light pointing of the final tomb scene, so brilliantly anticipated by Lewendel at the outset: like introducing a reaper Death at the outset.   

Christopher Smart's Benvolio (wonderfully adapting ‘Here comes Romeo..oh..oh..' as a kind of alack-a-day) is in some ways as good a foil to Romeo as his Moritz is to Melchior in Spring Awakening. Smart seems always intelligent, inventive. In some ways, he does the ‘other' emotions for all of them, for rarely does he deliver a line without some inventive, and always relevant, vocal or gestural envoi.  

No mere silent tree either: ‘Madam, an hour before the worshipp'd sun Peer'd forth the golden window of the east, A troubled mind drave me to walk abroad; Where, underneath the grove of sycamore That westward rooteth from the city's side, So early walking did I see your son.' That might easily be Wedekind's Moritz. ‘Compare her face with some that I shall show, And I will make thee think thy swan a crow.' What a joyous speaker. What a treat of an actor. 

Tragic end for history's most famous of star-cross'd lovers . . .

However I'm not sure that the general moves, so split-second, spot-on in the Wedekind, couldn't have been sharper defined here, including Benvolio's. It applied to Gabrielle Dempsey's female Tybalt: again, her ‘resexing' an error, for with a little finessing and slightly less sidling around, Dempsey – in the other show a wonderful Wendla - came close to offering a perfectly acceptable ‘male' Tybalt. Re the moves, Lewendel is too perceptive, thoughtful and incisive a director not to have firmed up some of this side-business, and added a few more salient gestural details. If Icarus's Romeo limped just occasionally (in a very long tour, it should be added) it was in these ancillary touches, not in the main thrust. 

The ultimate ancilla, of course, is Juliet's Nurse, and she is anything but a spare part. Gemma Barrett caught my eye even in the lesser, early scenes of Frau Bergman, Wendla's mother in Spring Awakening. Here she effortlessly carried off the honours. This nurse, bustling, conniving, periodically strutting like a bossy peacock, was utterly insuppressible. Her scenes with Juliet were a joy; those with Romeo, an education.  

On Tybalt's death (he like Juliet, nursed by her) she explodes like Margaret of Anjou (and just imagine what a Richard III this youthful, comely team could deliver). Barrett effortlessly plays age; she has the looks, the sidelong glances, the pausing hesitations, the confidential knowledge, the radiant nostalgia, the thrust and flamboyance to capture every whisper of Nurse's character, like a Mistress Quickly, and bring new freshness to old lines. It's a handsome, gifted, inspiring team all round, but Barrett, who could be snatched by the RSC tomorrow, is the best here by a few miles. 

She and Laurence, like just about everyone in this play, are tragic heroes. Laurence witnesses the futility of his reverend, worldly wise, miscalculated – infatuation, is it? – for a sprouting teenage boy, almost his apprentice. Barrett's West Country nurse is the victim of as shattering a rejection as Prince Hal's of Falstaff – although she (nominally) does not hear it. When Juliet seizes command (‘What villain, madam? Villain and he be many miles asunder'), no longer demure, her turncoat helper dispatched (‘Go, counsellor; Thou and my bosom henceforth shall be twain') she grows in such stature here that there is no stopping. In order to die, she becomes an adult.  

Ironic, then, that the ‘villain' line has been aped by Juliet herself already (‘But, wherefore, villain, didst thou kill my cousin?'); though exonerating Romeo with ‘That villain cousin would have kill'd my husband.' 

Nicole Anderson, expressive, tempting, compelling as the kind of earth goddess figure in Spring Awakening, has by this stage upgraded her melting performance – the little girl - to a superb new persona: ‘Take up those cords: poor ropes, you are beguiled…He made you for a highway to my bed; But I, a maid, die maiden-widowed. Come, cords, come, nurse; I'll to my wedding-bed; And death, not Romeo, take my maidenhead!'  

His cord-climbing visit on wedding night may or may not have claimed her maidenhead: Lewendel, leaving us in no doubt about the ambiguous rape in Spring Awakening, presents things as chastely as Zeffirelli's 1968 film, which at least offered a sash window shot of Leonard Whiting's youthful(ish) bottom. Dubois would have done nudity with aplomb. No full frontal. No hint of a maidenhead-bespattered nightdress. ‘We relish what others shy away from, show what others daren't.' Cutting-edge Icarus's take on first-time-in marital coition seems to have gone AWOL.                      

Now with its own rather smart and desirable one- or two-room rehearsal space (available for hire, 0207 998 1562, email hire@icarustheatre.co.uk) opposite its offices near Oxford Circus, right in the heart of London's West End, Icarus, which aims to mount two mid-scale tours and one fringe production annually, has Ionesco's The Lesson – which drew prizes and accolades in Romania (‘50s absurdism made over as 90s, in-yer-face apocalypticism!" - Time Out) – back in repertoire; as well as the forthcoming tour of Othello and what promises to be a searing Hedda Gabler (early 2014 at England venues). 

Nothing could have proved the value of Icarus's usually no-holds-barred approach than the audience at the Gatehouse. It consisted almost entirely of youngsters who would have been precise contemporaries of Romeo and his fair Juliet, Tybalt and Benvolio. Pouring into the theatre, or milling (but not buying) in the bar, they looked like Dubois and Smart and Anderson. And a few (apt) wolf-whistles apart, they were agog at the show. The timing of two of Leicester's showings is designed to cater for a like young audience.     

So - it's surely a pity that Icarus - at present - visits so few West Midland venues. How about Wolverhampton, Coventry, Warwick, Worcester, Hereford? The audiences are there, in droves; and we have young, too. It's an omission that needs reversing. Venue promoters, please note. 

Roderic Dunnett

Romeo and Juliet is at Leicester's De Montfort Hall on Tuesday 16 (7.30 p.m.) and Wednesday 17 April (10.30 a.m. and 2.30 p.m.): 0116 233 3111 

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