The two best performances of the night were by the pros Ishia Bennison as the Nurse and Andrew French as Friar Laurence. Bennison combined humor with deep emotional connection, especially to Juliet but also to Romeo and even to Capulet, who lashed out at the old family servant as he tried to bully his daughter into marrying Paris. French’s Friar was another ambivalent part — the Nurse and Friar are empathetic figures but bad counselors — who brought out the best in the performances of his young charges. The Friar’s somewhat inexplicable cowardice in the final scene wasn’t really solved by French’s performance, but I’m not sure that plot-awkwardness is fully resolvable.
The heart of the RSC’s summer show of Romeo and Juliet, though, was the young actors in the leading roles, especially Charlotte Josephine’s shadow-boxing Mercutio and Karen Fishwick’s Scottish-accented Juliet. Both women made their RSC debuts in this show. Bally Gil as Romeo isn’t quite as new to the RSC, but his open-hearted and open-armed lover-boy fit the show’s youthful core, along with debut actors in the parts of Paris (Afolabi Alli), Peter (Raif Clarke), Samson (Steve Basaula), and Benvolio (Josh Finan)
At halftime I chatted with some very distinguished Shakespeareans whom I won’t name but who have seen generations come and go on the RSC stage. They complained about Fishwick’s verse speaking, and about Josephine’s overly athletic and mannered Mercutio. They were right, on some level — technically right. The boxing distracted from the pentameter. But I couldn’t help feeling that they didn’t quite catch the vibe.
I’m here in Stratford with my daughter Olivia, who I always count on to give me the teenager’s report on these productions. (Her all-time favorite was Oscar Isaac’s four-hour Hamlet in the Public Theater last summer — which means she doesn’t mind long plays or tragedies, but is a bit susceptible to actors who also play the rebel pilot Poe Dameron in the latest Star Wars trilogy.) I would have liked to have gotten her read on Charlotte Josephine, but she’s still working on her jet lag and passed on this one.
I’ve seen Karen Fishwick before, in the impressively potty-mouthed musical “Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour,” the darling of Edinburgh Fringe that visited New Haven in the summer of ’16. As in New Haven, I wasn’t entirely convinced by Fishwick as Juliet. She was in places a bit overmastered by the verse: Juliet’s “Come night” monologue in 3.2 is some of Shakespeare’s most blazing poetry. Fishwick didn’t pace the speech right — though she did wonderfully throw herself back into her bedding to emphasize the childishness of the speech’s last moment, when Juliet likened her wait for Romeo to “the night before some festival / To an impatient child that hath new robes / And may not wear them” (3.2). There were some better moments, including most of her scenes with the Nurse, but Juliet’s the heart-core of the play, and Fishwick didn’t quite get all the way there.
Unless Charlotte Josephine’s Mercutio was the real heart, which got stabbed by Tybalt just before intermission. Josephine’s hyper-activity, which dismayed and distracted some members of the audience, also enlivened the part. The gender noncomformity in Josephine’s casting (Mercutio is one of the toxic swordfighting men of Verona) and in her buzz-cut faux-macho affect were compelling. Mercutio’s poetic playfulness and constant willingness to risk anything make it a hard part to contain, and the role can, as in this performance, put Romeo in the shade in the first act. When Josephine sputtered out Mercutio’s dying one-liner — “ask for me tomorrow, and you will find me a grave man” (3.1) — I wondered if the show could keep its fires burning without its brightest lamp.
The answer was partly that it could not, though Afolabi Alli’s Paris did his best. The second act felt the loss of possibility and of Mercutio’s reckless optimism. I’m not sure this young cast was all quite ready to carry the tragedy, but I look forward to seeing them try other roles in the future.