Romeo And Juliet [Open Air Production]

Brownsea Open Air Theatre [BOAT]   Brownsea Island, Poole Harbour KD Johnson 31 July  2023

A visit to Brownsea Island, on any day of reasonable weather, is always a treat. To be able to take the early ferry over, eat a picnic meal on the island and then to watch a great show by Brownsea Open Air Theatre (BOAT) in their 60th anniversary year, has to be counted amongst the best of treats. It is a shame that the nature reserve has been closed due to Avian Flu – but it is due to reopen on Saturday 5 August.

One of the advantages of reviewing a production of this, best known, Shakespearean tragedy is that I don’t have to worry about giving away the plot. I can’t imagine that there are many people reading this that haven’t either studied Romeo and Juliet at school, read it privately, seen a stage, television or film adaptation or even heard a song about the tragic couple, e.g. Dire Straits, Taylor Swift. Quotations from the play have entered the common parlance and you can even have a Juliet Balcony on your house.

The BOAT entertainment always starts before the actual play and this year was no exception – members of the cast wander the grounds outside the auditorium juggling and swinging decorative poi (you can Google it – I did) while dressed in period costume. As the audience takes their seats the pageantry continues in the performance space while traders with mobile market stalls offer us beer, vegetables, ballroom masks and a slice of a huge, but presumably inedible, pie. There is an impressive display of martial staff spinning by James Riley and the whole thing – choreographed by Philippa Hendry – sets the scene of a mediaeval market-place in 16th century Verona.

The pageant clears and 2 Capulet men open with a bawdy explanation of the conflict between the two families and what they would like to do to some of the Montague women.  The Montagues enter and we are treated to the first spectacular and dramatic brawl of the production – choreographed, as ever, by Fight Directors Peter Beebee and Richard Batt. Here we are introduced to Benvolio (Sam Goodman), of the Montagues, and Tybalt (James Riley), of the Capulets, and then to old Capulet himself (Chaz Davenport) and Escalus, the Prince of Verona (played here by Belinda Harward), who quells the brawl “on pain of death”.

It would be a very long review indeed if I were to itemise every such scene and, as I surmised earlier, we all know the story anyway. That being said I am surprised at how many good parts there are in this play. We think of Romeo (Dylan Havard – at only 17 years old, but already so talented) and Juliet (Jessica Allen – another young, first-time BOATer) and these are definitely ones to watch for in the future – but they are only parts of the whole. Chaz Davenport plays a great part as Juliet’s father, Capulet, and Brian Woolton is brilliant as the likeable but tragically short-lived Mercutio, whose dying curse “A plague o’ both your houses!” proves remarkably efficacious. Lucy Palmer extracts every ounce of humour out of the role of Juliet’s Nurse, while also being suitably distressed at the tragic events which occur. It never occurred to me that the role of Friar Laurence had so much meat, but Stuart Glossop makes a fine meal of it. We can’t have those great parts without all the servants, dancers, friends, officers of the state and sundry others – a host of which are required in this production. Notable among the smaller parts is Dave Vinter as Peter, the bawdy Capulet servant, (also making a disguised cameo as the Apothecary).

The set and staging lacks the innovation and drama of previous BOAT sets, though I do like the projected cross on the floor of the friary and the lighting (by CPS) is generally good. The music, recorded by Courtlye Musick, seems a bit distorted in places – though I suppose 16th century recording technology is a bit primitive. It is a shame not to have any live musicians as, apart from the wrist-bell dance at the ball – good though it is, all the music is recorded. On balance I like the ethereal sound of Romeo and Juliet’s lives passing away and the procession of incense waving black friars at the cemetery is a welcome innovation.

After the excitement, bawdy humour and dramatic ending of Act 1, Act 2 is very bleak and emotional by comparison – this much is in the text of the play. The company takes this on, providing a powerful performance without letting the energy or pace slip, leading to the inevitable tragic climax.

The show runs again on 2, 4, 7, 9 and 11 August at 7:30pm but, unless you are lucky enough to already have a ticket or can acquire one as a cancellation, it is already sold out.

I look forward to “The Scottish Play” next year.