Romeo & Juliet review – Duke of York’s, London ★★★☆☆

Photo: Marc Brenner

Jamie Lloyd’s production of Romeo & Juliet sees style sucking the life out of substance in the much-hyped opening of Shakespeare’s tragedy, starring Marvel movie star Tom Holland. Brooding from the outset, the production sets the tone pre-show with Michael “Mikey J” Asante’s ominous, electronic-driven compositions. It perfectly matches the production, which strips back the action and downplays the emotion while simultaneously attempting to drive suspense and tension. Lloyd’s problem is that without the former, the latter can’t work.

Holland and West-End debutant Francesca Amewudah-Rivers are so constrained by the shackles of Lloyd’s directorial concept that the on-stage relationship struggles to burst into life, despite their palpable chemistry, while the blood-soaked fight that results in the deaths of Mercutio (Joshua-Alexander Williams) and Tybalt (Ray Sesay) is sanitised, not shocking. Without action and emotion, things no longer make sense.

Photo: Marc Brenner

Kitted out with Lloyd’s now trademark headset microphone, actors whisper their lines breathily at half pace as if creating an ASMR video. When they take to hand-held microphones their speech is often riddled with pops and plosive sounds. Despite these distractions, and even with the constraints, there is still something to be admired in the performances. Forced into muted turns, it is not our Romeo or our Juliet who stand out – instead, Freema Agyeman as the Nurse and Michael Balogun as the friar shine. Notably, Agyeman is the sole performer who manages to find some humour in the text while Balogun is a powerful force.

Holland fails to earn the circus of admiration on display outside the theatre after performances, with masses of fans lining both sides of the pavements post-show in the hope of a five-second glimpse of the star on his journey from the stage door to a waiting car, having just watched him perform for well over two hours. It’s a serviceable performance that occasionally flashes into life – but one that is unlikely to live long in the memory. Amewudah-Rivers displays glimpses of a fine Juliet, but ultimately she can’t crack through the density of the production.

Photo: Marc Brenner

It has the unfortunate marker of feeling at times like a live-streamed soap opera, with over-earnest off-stage performances being beamed live from the foyer, bar, backstage area and roof to the on-stage screens. The fittings and fixtures of the Duke of York’s public areas are the only time when any hint of colour is found in Soutra Gilmour’s monochromatic set and costume design – other than when blood is involved. At other moments the production has the feel of a radio play recording session or a play-reading. The second half begins with a long sequence of four characters standing in a row, speaking into into standing mics, rather than addressing each other.

You wonder what the point of these directorial choices are, and what they add, however remarkable some of the technical aspects are. For example, the death of Mercutio takes place upstage with a close-up of his face, the width of the stage, playing behind him. Yes, it is visually impressive but ignore the screen and you find a more impactful moving performance right in front of you. The result of all of this is, by the end, you feel no real sense of loss for these star-crossed lovers – impressed by the spectacle, maybe, but not moved.

Romeo & Juliet is at the Duke of York’s until 3 August 2024