Director: Ben Gould
Reviewer: Hattie Williams
They say comedy is tragedy plus time. Thankfully more than 400 years have passed since Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet was first performed. Ben Gould’s brave adaptation is not for traditionalists; it is funny. In the Hen and Chickens theatre, Highbury and Islington, the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet is heartily mocked through the simple ploy of exaggerating just about everything.
From wooing to dying, every move and line is delivered with ludicrous energy. This is Commedia dell’Arte, that is, masked comedy, and the debut performance of the aptly named theatre company Commedia of Errors.
Lindsey Crow’s Juliet is as whimsical and childish as one would expect in a Commedia, flouncing about the stage and flinging hand to head at every turn. If exaggeration is the name of the game she wins by a mile. Her doubling as Romeo’s caddish friend Benvolio provides much of the comedy of the first half, with a touch of Blackadder, as they back slap, thrust and woof their way through the plot. George Jovanovic’s Romeo is less intriguing and though he is playing up to the stereotype of a ‘teenager’, his bumbling innocence, at first charming, did become tedious.
Despite the arguably unavoidable atmosphere of a drama class, there were a few moments of brilliance. Juliet’s nurse, Cathy Conneff, was well received, hopping and hobbling around the stage and revealing her wisdom was down to ‘reading ahead in the script’. Like a Christmas pantomime, there is no need to suspend disbelief. The fourth wall comes crashing down with a wink and a nod.
Alec Fellows-Bennet was a strong Mercutio, the older and bolder companion of poor Romeo, and somewhat more captivating. Unexpectedly, his dying speech was so impassioned as to merit silence from the audience, until of course he leapt up to die again for a cheap laugh. Fellows-Bennet also play’s Samson, the bumbling everyman come man servant with a thick Yorkshire accent. His unsubtle admiration for Juliet made him rather a scapegoat of slapstick, much like Paris, Juliet’s suitor, played by Gould as creepy, old and somewhat repulsive.
The silliness, however, has a point. In Shakespeare’s tragic romance the lovers are arguably too young, fast, naive and unable to satisfy their own ideals of love. Gould’s adaptation thrives on these criticisms and indeed chooses to magically revive the couple and grant them their first kiss (comically avoided thus far). Their reaction is repulsion. The lights go down and all the pathos in the prince’s final speech on unity and love is farcical. And so the great tragedy becomes a comedy, enjoyable for that, if nothing else.