Romeo and Juliet review – RSC's gender-fluid tragedy of youth

In 1845, the American Charlotte Cushman toured Britain playing Romeo to her sister’s Juliet. Erica Whyman’s new Royal Shakespeare Company production doesn’t go as far as that, but casts women in five traditionally male roles, including Mercutio, and is multicultural and youth-oriented. The result is a swift, lively show that went down hugely well with the audience but that doesn’t solve the problems inherent in the play itself.

Whyman, in the programme, describes Juliet as “the agent of her own destiny”, but that is precisely what she isn’t. Shakespeare took his plot from a didactic poem by Arthur Brooke and created a spirited Juliet who doesn’t fit into its framework. Where later Shakespeare heroines such as Rosalind and Imogen seize the initiative, Juliet submits to the machinations of a bungling herbalist. Karen Fishwick does all she can to suggest youthful defiance, beating her bedroom pillows in rage as she takes the old pusher’s drugs, but you feel this strong-willed Juliet would have followed Romeo into exile. Meanwhile, Bally Gill plays Romeo as an impetuous young hothead. They make an engaging couple, but their modernity only highlights the manufactured nature of a tragedy that depends on the erratic Italian postal service.

The casting of Charlotte Josephine as Mercutio raises a host of issues. Josephine, who has written and performed a play called Bitch Boxer about a 21-year-old pugilist, plausibly plays Mercutio as a tough, crop-haired female bruiser always ready for a scrap. The performance is perfectly enjoyable, but left me faintly puzzled. Even if Mercutio aspires to be part of a laddish culture, would she engage in such rancid sexist abuse of Juliet’s Nurse or react with such hostility on being told that she “consorts” with Romeo? I welcome gender-fluid casting but, since Shakespeare’s play is an attack on the destructiveness of male violence, is there any gain in casting one of the key knife-wielders as a woman?

Ready for a scrap … Charlotte Josephine as Mercutio, left, with Josh Finan as Benvolio. Photograph: Topher McGrillis

Whyman’s flexibility pays off handsomely, however, in the casting of Beth Cordingly as the angry Veronese prince, Escalus, who berates the city’s men for their tribal warfare. Many of the other roles are also strongly played. Ishia Bennison suggests the Nurse enjoys a giggling intimacy with Juliet, only to be pained by her later exclusion. Michael Hodgson makes Capulet a violently abusive figure reminding us how often in Shakespeare fathers are seen as raging domestic tyrants (think of Lear and Leonato in Much Ado About Nothing).

Andrew French as Friar Laurence speaks the verse better than anyone on stage and Josh Finan makes a real character out of Benvolio by suggesting he is hopelessly smitten by Romeo.

Tom Piper’s design, deploying the same kind of rotating cube he recently used in The Great Wave at the National, is oddly nondescript. It is significant how many of the best versions of this play, from Franco Zeffirelli’s seething Italian production to Baz Luhrmann’s California-based film, have a socially precise setting. Even if Whyman hasn’t solved all the problems the play poses, she reminds us of the truth of Harley Granville-Barker’s observation that “this is a tragedy of youth”. Not only is the cast supplemented by schoolchildren, but Fishwick and Gill as the lovers vigorously convey a doomed innocence.

At the Royal Shakespeare theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 21 September. Box office: 01789 403493. Then at the Barbican, London, 2 November-19 January 2018.

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