‘Romeo and Juliet’ Review: Tom Holland-Led Production Is Hobbled by Director Jamie Lloyd’s Extreme Stylization

The relationship is captivating. The energy flowing effortlessly between them means you instantly feel their connection, their shared affection, their give and take. It’s by far the strongest relationship in the production. The only difficulty is that it’s the one between Francesca Amewudah-Rivers’ Juliet and Freema Agyeman’s outstanding Nurse. And in Jamie Lloyd’s production of “Romeo and Juliet” starring the headline-grabbing Tom Holland (in a run 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 we’re in 1597 but Lloyd is at pains to present an utterly contemporary world. And, as with his vital reinvention of Lucy Prebble’s “The Effect” (transferred from the National Theatre to NYC’s The Shed) and the upcoming Broadway transfer of his sell-out but more divisive “Sunset Boulevard,” the aesthetic on display — display being the operative word — is fiercely stripped-down.

Soutra Gilmour’s monochrome design is all rising and falling steel girders on a bald set with neither decoration nor props. This is a world of intense shadows created by Jon Clark’s stark side-lighting, allowing black-clad performers to loom in and out of darkness.

The brightest element comes via video, splashed across a stage-wide screen and shot live via two Steadicams, showing the performers on stage or, as is already a cliché following its much-copied first appearance in Ivo Van Hove’s “Network,” in sequences in which characters are revealed walking from corridors backstage onto the stage or, in this instance, seen coming down from a scene outdoors atop the theater’s roof.

For all the focus on these and other projections of intense close-up moments, the most attention-grabbing element is sound. Every moment is underscored by everything from sudden stings and doom-laden, intense, industrial hum, all the way to bursts of drum ’n’ bass in an attempt to add tension.

Each actor not only has a mic taped to their face but, for the majority of the (in)action, they face front impassively, as if poleaxed, at the front of the stage at microphone stands, delivering the text. The rest of the stage is almost never used. Undeniably arresting though this initially is, it gradually hits you that they’re reciting words at, rather than to, the audience. The result, worryingly, is the absence of anything approaching connection.

This self-conscious banishing of traditional naturalism supposedly to focus upon the text is scarcely a new approach, but given the lack of visual clues or physical manifestation of the relationships, it’s extremely hard to follow either who’s who or the actual plot. Newcomers are likely to be baffled by all but the barest bones of the story.

Matters are not helped by Lloyd’s insistence on the supposed hushed intensity gained by having everyone either whisper or, occasionally, shout. Almost no one but the beautifully characterized nurse and Michael Balogun’s patient Friar actually speaks. For much of the rest of time, lines are intoned, often at a pace that is either slow or very slow. Ninety per cent of the play is written in verse but here the rhythm of the lines is completely broken by pauses in which energy and sense are drained away, and meaning is lost. Likewise, the exuberance of love and youth is entirely missing. One of the biggest victims of this is an undercast Mercutio (Joshua-Alexander Williams), whose character is entirely robbed of impulsive dynamism — meaning his famous, long speech goes for nothing.

More from Variety

The exception to all this is Juliet. In the first half in particular, Amewudah-Rivers’ well-grounded calmness pays huge dividends. Her grasp of her character brings the audience to her, and her quick-witted reactions are highly legible. She, like the older, more skilled actors, is able to find nuance within the prevailing style. But Holland lacks her still stage presence. He’s perfectly plausible as lovestruck Romeo growing increasingly stressed and distressed, but he emotes rather than elicits emotions.

Both actors are hobbled by the logical (over)extension of Lloyd’s approach. Juliet sits down front to take her poison and then closes her eyes. But instead of staging the Nurse’s distressed discovery of her body and the reactions of her father, Lloyd lines them up at the back of the stage facing away from the audience. We hear the lines but with no reactions to watch, the scene is bizarrely shorn of any emotional response.

The same bald, monotonous pacing dogs Holland’s hardworking approach to the final scene. There’s more sadness created in the Friar’s closing speech, proof that, filled to the brim with stylization though the production is, it’s in thrall to its effects but fails to deliver 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. It surely cannot have been the intention to make a production in praise of the older generation.

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.