Shakespeare and the Bourgeoisie? ‘Romeo and Juliet’ at the Garrick Theatre

When I booked my tickets to see Rob Stark and Cinderella perform in the GCSE classic, by one of the most overly hyped theatre companies in all of London, it’s safe to say I had high expectations.

The Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company boasts members like Dame Judi Dench and Sir Derek Jacobi – both are actors with hefty theatrical repertoires. So why, with its sparkly casting and classical script, did the piece fall flat on its face?

I bought the tickets months in advance; one in exchange for a kidney. No, really – as a student on a budget, these sorts of events are extortionate. The main reason I splurged was because I thought it would be worth it.

Before I’d even sat in my seat I felt out of place. I’m a regular theatre-goer and don’t feel the need to really dress up for it anymore. Almost the entire room had the feel of a white-collar bourgeois lunch date. The woman next to me complained that I might get wine on her coat when I approached with a plastic flute filled with the theatre’s sweetest rosé. I wasn’t in Kansas anymore; I was a drama student who knew her stuff in a room filled with cultured ‘mansplainers’ and middle-aged women with too much self importance to even think that a student in her black leggings and casual oversized shirt might actually be able to hold a plastic wine glass properly.

When the show did start, though, I was glad to think about something other than the fact that I was probably the poorest soul in the room. Rob Ashford and Kenneth Branagh’s direction certainly reflected on the show. If I hadn’t already seen the fifties, film noir aesthetic used and abused during my academic drama career I might have even been impressed. Black-on-white-on-black-on-grey. The costume designer did a great job, and in hindsight the set (with its grey, cliché, Dungeons & Dragons-esque brickwork) worked well to foreshadow the play’s climax.

The show was far from spectacular. Was there anything particularly wrong with it? No, not really. The acting was great, if not a bit been-there-done-that. It was a safe performance, and I could tell decisions were made to tailor to an audience that just wanted to sit down and enjoy a classical script. Doing so, though, meant that this rendition didn’t do or say anything new. Romeo & Juliet just missed the mark for what I look for in theatre; something exciting, different and most of all challenging.

I love it when theatre makes me stop to think–when it forces me into uncomfortable discourse with everything that defines me as a person. Parts of this piece, I think anyway, try to reach for that state of being. For example, the cast had been condensed down and two of the minor roles had been gender swapped.

Peter is servant to the Capulets, and is also the apothecary. Peter can’t read and becomes the comic relief of the show, with her cheap wit and passive flirting. Whilst, from a practical perspective they have created an equal male to female employment ratio, I’d have been more invested in a Lady Romeo than I was in an illiterate, drug dealing Peter. Painting her in such a way doesn’t challenge the representation of women characters in theatre, which I’d have liked more of. If they were willing to gender swap Peter, why not chose to do so with one of the main protagonists instead?

To summarise, it’s an ok performance. The cast are a renowned and talented collective. Whilst you can tell the director’s have tried to incorporate a lot of ideas into the play, they reach the audience half formed. If you’re not a regular drama enthusiast like I am, you might enjoy it more than I did. Unfortunately it just wasn’t all that I’d hoped to experience.

Romeo & Juliet is in Theatre’s until August 13th.
Find more information and tickets here:

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