Tom Holland’s West End play flops

The relationship is captivating. The energy that flows effortlessly between them means you instantly feel their connection, their shared affection, their give and take. It is by far the strongest relationship in production. The only difficulty is that it is the one between Francesca Amewudah-Rivers’s Juliet and Freema Agyeman’s outstanding nurse. And in Jamie Lloyd’s production of “Romeo and Juliet,” starring hoarder Tom Holland (in a performance that sold out in two hours), that’s quite a problem. And not the only one.

A giant projected image of the date tells us it’s 1597, but Lloyd takes pains to present a completely contemporary world. And, as with her vital reinvention of Lucy Prebble’s “The Effect” (transferring from the National Theater to New York’s The Shed) and the upcoming Broadway transfer of her sold-out but more divisive “Sunset Boulevard,” the aesthetics on display (display is the key word: it is fiercely simplified.

Soutra Gilmour’s monochromatic design is made up of steel beams that rise and fall on a stage without decoration or props. This is a world of intense shadows created by Jon Clark’s intense side lighting, which allows black-clad performers to appear in and out of the darkness.

The brightest element comes through the video, projected on a screen that spans the entire stage and filmed live via two Steadicams, showing the artists on stage or, as is already a cliché after their much-copied first appearance in “Network” by Ivo Van Hove, in sequences. in which the characters are revealed walking from the backstage hallways onto the stage or, in this case, walking down from an outdoor scene on the roof of the theater.

Despite all the attention paid to these and other projections of intense close-up moments, the element that draws the most attention is the sound. Every moment is underlined by everything from sudden stings and intense, doom-laden industrial drones, to bursts of drum ‘n’ bass in an attempt to add tension.

Each actor not only has a microphone glued to their face but, during most of the (in)action, they stare impassively, as if riddled, at the front of the stage, in front of the microphone stands, delivering the text. The rest of the stage is almost never used. Although this is undeniably surprising at first, you gradually realize that they are reciting words to the audience, rather than at them. The result, worryingly, is the absence of any connection.

This conscious banishment of traditional naturalism supposedly to focus on the text is not a new approach, but given the lack of visual cues or physical manifestation of relationships, it is extremely difficult to follow who is who or the actual plot. Newcomers are likely to be baffled by all but the most basic aspects of the story.

Things are not helped by Lloyd’s insistence on the supposed quiet intensity achieved by having everyone whisper or occasionally shout. Almost no one, except the beautifully characterized nurse and Michael Balogun’s patient Friar, really speaks. For much of the rest of the time, the lines are intoned, often at a slow or very slow tempo. Ninety percent of the work is written in verse, but here the rhythm of the lines is completely broken by pauses in which energy and meaning are exhausted and meaning is lost. Likewise, the exuberance of love and youth is completely missing. One of the biggest victims of this is a Mercutio (Joshua-Alexander Williams), whose character is completely devoid of impulsive dynamism, meaning that his famously long speech is of no use.

The exception to all this is Juliet. In the first half in particular, Amewudah-Rivers’ well-founded calm pays huge dividends. Her understanding of her character draws the audience to her and her witty reactions are very readable. She, like older and more skilled actors, is able to find nuances within the predominant style. But Holland lacks its scenic stillness. She is perfectly plausible as an increasingly stressed and distraught Romeo in love, but she conveys emotions rather than provoking them.

Both actors are hampered by the logical (over)extension of Lloyd’s approach. Juliet sits in front to take the poison from her and then closes her eyes. But instead of staging the nurse’s anguished discovery of her body and her father’s reactions, Lloyd lines them up at the back of the stage, with his back to the audience. We hear the lines but with no reactions to see, the scene is strangely devoid of any emotional response.

The same bald, monotonous walk haunts Holland’s hard-working approach in the final scene. More sadness is created in the friar’s final speech, proof that, although the production is full of stylization, it is captivated by its effects but fails to offer dramatic effect.

It’s deeply ironic that in the world’s most famous play about young love and death, the characters you end up sympathizing with most are the nurse, the friar, and even the parents. Surely it cannot have been the intention to make a production in praise of the previous generation.

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