Second Age made something of a splash last year with their production of Macbeth that toured the country. It imagined the Scottish bloodbath as a sort of an on-stage action movie that included strobe lights, Radiohead and some excellent battle choreography. The final product was, as its typical teenage audience member might say, OTT, but it nonetheless provided a bold new route into the tragedy.
They return to Shakespeare this winter with a production of Romeo and Juliet, a play lacking in neither spilled blood nor emotional fireworks. So it’s notable to see Second Age taking an almost opposite approach in retelling that very familiar story of warring families and tragic teenage love. In place of pyrotechnics, a somewhat austere feeling pervades, which seems intended to tell us something about the play’s morose heart.
Shakespeare’s original script includes over 20 speaking parts. Second Age entrusts this production to a mere six actors, who – bar Jack Hickey who ‘only’ plays Romeo – dutifully perform multiple roles, with all of the female actors swapping genders. It’s an approach that never overwhelms the cast. Director Conor Hanratty’s decision to cast Megan Riordan as both amorous Juliet and her bloodthirsty cousin Tybalt was inspired: here we have the two-sided coin of Capulet passion (Riordan is believable in both roles), seduced and slayed by a Montague. For all the double-jobbing, two characters especially stood out. Amy Conroy infuses her Nurse with a delightful amount of Irish mammy, while Karl Quinn stole the show with his performance of bawdy Mercutio. Hanratty has extracted every suggestive morsel from Mercutio’s lines and Quinn performs them all with a ribald, slightly camp and beyond suggestive zest.
And while we can assume the Capulets and Montagues lived relatively opulent lives as Verona socialites, Maree Kearns’s stage design also shares a feeling of restraint. A Roman arch fills the background space in front of a semicircular staircase, while a few white boxes which function as chairs and later as Juliet’s deathbed complete the set. In one eye-catching set piece, Conroy lip-synchs into a vintage microphone to a Brazilian swing number as Romeo and Juliet’s eyes meet for the first time, but by and large this production rarely diverts from the linear urgency of the text and rests with the actors’ negotiation of it.
Much of that pressure is borne by the star-crossed lovers. There’s a sort of boy band safeness about lanky Hickey and his Romeo, and almost like a pop star, he slyly crouched to deliver his lines in the direction of the audience (and even jumped off stage when Mercutio and Benvolio return from the party). The passion he and Juliet share is certainly believable and brought to life in a number of long, arduous kisses. It is only during those final two acts of engulfing gloom (elaborated nicely by Kevin’s Smith’s lighting design), as Shakespeare conspires to bring about the couple’s demise, that the production stutters. Once Mercutio declares that plague upon both houses and Romeo is exiled to Mantua, the production reverts to a stricter reading of the text which lacks the unexpected theatrical touches that set Second Age apart.
Ivan Birthistle and Vincent Doherty’s sound design provided naturalistic layers onto the minimal production stage design – adding in cricket chirps during Romeo and Juliet’s evening courtship and tinny echoes when Romeo discovers his lover prostate in the Capulet’s burial vault. Hanratty seemed most interested in making the Bard accessible, and throughout, the Elizabethan English of the cast, especially Michael Glenn Murphy and Gina Moxley, was crisp and clear.
They may be one of the world’s most famous couples, but Romeo and Juliet’s actual romance is rather brief. Shakespeare expends far more energy in aligning the details of their mutual deaths. “Never was a story of more woe told” declares the Prince at the tragedy’s conclusion before a church bell gongs. This is a sturdy production that promises much, and yet even with actors swapping characters frenetically, is handicapped in the end by its own fealty to Shakespeare’s original text.
Donald Mahoney is a writer based in Dublin. His work has appeared in the Dublin Review, the International Herald-Tribune, the LA Times, The Irish Times and others.