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‘Romeo and Juliet’ Review: ‘Ted Lasso’s’ Toheeb Jimoh Is Play’s Heart

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Having the audacity to harness stabs and slashes of Prokofiev’s celebrated ballet score for “Romeo and Juliet” for a production of Shakespeare’s play suggests remarkable confidence on the part of white-hot director Rebecca Frecknall. It’s not misplaced. Her startlingly visceral production, with a cast led by Toheeb Jimoh of “Ted Lasso,” is not only lit up by the power of bodies leaping in space and dramatically alert even when in repose; it’s also alive to the detailed drama of Shakespeare’s language. The intensity she engenders in her actors is sometimes ramped-up too highly and everything boils over, but at its finest, the fiercely articulate passion is electrifying.

The fact that the rulebook is being rewritten is made plain from the get-go. The famous opening address about “two houses alike in dignity” is not spoken: The text is lit up on the wall covering the entire front of the stage. Beneath Gareth Fry’s low growl of a soundscape, the company gathers one by one to claw against it before sending it crashing to the ground. But this is not just a shock tactic. Frecknall is illuminating the line about “taking the wall of any man” and using physical energy to punch into a vigorously staged fight between the warring Montagues and Capulets.

Although the actors are dressed in mostly effective contemporary, youthful clothes with passing hints of Elizabethan costumes, they’re really dressed by Lee Curran’s always evocative lighting. Alternately scalding and caressing the darkness, Curran’s designs glare across and define a space that is empty but for three ladders and five vertical lighting bars across the Almeida Theatre’s signature curved, brick back wall.

The focus, therefore, is not on location but on intense relationships. And through them, Frecknall, for the most part, elicits not just the meaning of a line but its intent. 

“Romeo and Juliet” is not just about love and death; it’s about youthful passion that swiftly erupts into violence because its characters act before they think. To convey that, she keeps her foot on the accelerator (the play runs two hours without an intermission), creating the vital momentum via fast connections between characters.

Jo McInnes’ nurse radiates ruthless common sense as well as knowing kindness, and her whiplash timing means she can also speak volumes with a single exasperated look at Romeo, telling us everything we need to know about her understanding of him. And Jamie Ballard delivers a tour-de-force as Lord Capulet, going from calm control to superbly calibrated fury. His utter rage at his daughter’s refusal to bend to his will is as upsetting as it is shocking — to both Amanda Bright’s easefully high-status Lady Capulet and to the captivated audience — because he plays it so  patiently and directly to a stunned Juliet.

The problems arise with the less well-modulated performances. All supercilious swagger, Jack Riddiford is a lean, mean Mercutio. But his heightened performance risks self-consciousness. His anger eats up space and time, but his fierceness leaves him nowhere to go.

There are elements of that too in Isis Hainsworth’s headstrong Juliet. Very much a teenager who knows her own mind, she is far from being simply bowled over by her love for Romeo. Indeed, Frecknall’s cunning staging of the balcony scene brings Juliet powerfully down on to the stage floor rather than leaving her virginally alone up above, a choice that accentuates this young woman’s determination.

But there are times when Hainsworth’s spirits swamp her delivery. With the volume cranked up to a level of shouting, her emotions become generalized and disengaging.

She is ideally balanced, however, by the thrillingly relaxed Jimoh as Romeo. Blessed with an extraordinarily expressive face – he seems to light up when he smiles — and a powerful baritone, his wonderfully low center of gravity allows him complete physical ease. And he’s as at ease with the text as he is with his body.

As a result, it’s not just moments like his immediate attraction to Juliet at the ball — staged with startling finesse by Frecknall, who is her own choreographer — that are telling. Jimoh uses lines to express emotion rather than the other way around. That respect for text makes Romeo and Juliet’s scenes together as moving as they are detailed. And with their love for one another so specifically and sweetly expressed, with as much humor as passion, their tragedy becomes all the greater. Stripped of sentimental cliché, their deaths are genuinely upsetting.

Frecknall, riding deservedly high with her incandescent London productions of the Paul Mescal-led “A Streetcar Named Desire” and the Eddie Redmayne-led “Cabaret” — the latter rumored to be eying a Broadway berth — more than knows her way around a classic. She usefully makes cuts in this early play which, in truth, is not filled throughout with Shakespeare’s strongest writing. But although the headlong result is a production that sometimes overplays its hand, you’re never in doubt about the play’s passion.



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