Romeo and Juliet

Paul Marron, John Currivan, Conor Marren, John Doran in 'Romeo and Juliet' presented by devise+conquer.

Paul Marron, John Currivan, Conor Marren, John Doran in 'Romeo and Juliet' presented by devise+conquer.

Lloyd Cooney, Tara Conlon in 'Romeo and Juliet' presented by devise+conquer.

Lloyd Cooney, Tara Conlon in 'Romeo and Juliet' presented by devise+conquer.

Fair Verona meets Dublin's Fair City in devise+conquer's energetic new production of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. This tragedy of “starcross'd” lovers from warring families has been endlessly adapted in the four centuries since it was written, but this latest version manages to stay entertaining throughout most of its five acts exactly because of its propulsive dose of bawdy inner-city Dublin swagger.

On the face of it, Verona of antiquity and contemporary Dublin are a world apart. But Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet contains enough raw violence to fill a Scorcese or Tarentino film. The stage command of Act I, Scene I - Enter SAMPSON and GREGORY, of the house of Capulet, armed with swords and bucklers – sets the tone for what is to come. It's certainly not the first time Romeo and Juliet has been set within a modern urban context, but by injecting some real Dublin grit into this production – and having most of her cast deliver their Elizabethean lines in salty Dublin accents – director Lianne O'Shea finds inventive ways to inject contemporary immediacy into a well-worn script. This is the Montagues and the Capulets in hoodies and tracksuit bottoms.

devise+conquerThe violence kicks off right way, as thugs from the sparring clans come to blows over a “thumb-pointing”' incident (which was cleverly re-imagined as a subtle middle-finger salute). Stav Dvorkin's fight direction – which is dynamite throughout – is most impressive during this near-epic tussle, as arms flail and bodies go flying. Among these ruffians, dagger-wielding Tybalt, cousin of Juliet, and played with a homicidal rage by Finbarr Doyle, emerges especially frightening.

Amid this air of menace and death, young Romeo (Lloyd Cooney) seeks escape, of course, in romantic love. In this production, he meets his lover Juliet (Tara Conlon) at a salubrious house party with cans of lager in abundance. Playing the most famous lovers of all time is a tall order for most actors; Romeo and Juliet here have a comfortable physical chemistry, but the two young actors sometimes struggled to convey the depth and severity of the couple's tumultuous and eventually suicidal love. The Elizabethean parlance felt like a barrier between the couple, and the very traditional portrayal of the romance jarred with the otherwise liberal re-imagining of the original script.

For these reasons, and also perhaps because of the sheer familiarity of the couple's plight, the characters around the couple's ill-fated romance emerged more memorably. John Currivan played Romeo's best mate Mercutio with a gleeful diffidence. John Doran, possibly the star of the performance, managed to contribute a truly unexpected dose of humour to his minor role as an illiterate Capulet thug, as well that of the dithering, full of good intentions Friar Laurence. Ann Russell's Nurse swills nips of brandy and blathers on and on, though her affection for Juliet is never in question.

devise+conquerSmithfield's Complex – a cavernous empty retail space – provides the ideal venue for staging this adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. John Meany's set design consists mostly of scaffolding, which captures a sense of urban decay, while proving both functional and durable during Juliet's bedroom scenes. Colm Ivers' lighting is sparse and activates the shadowy empty spaces around the the stage.

Though the momentum of the production drifts after the intermission that follows Act III and the scenes of romantic anguish that build up to deaths of Romeo and Juliet, there were still a few pleasing touches. As Romeo plots his own death in Act V, he pays a visit to a local apothecary in order to secure the poison will kill him. Rather than some hoary beaded man in tunic, this apothecary (Doyle again) is a fearsome drug-dealer with a baseball cap and a hoodie concealing his eyes. But it is not sheer familiarity that makes devise+conquer's production of Romeo and Juliet resonate. The bellicosity that sent young lovers seeking love and death in each other's arms that's on display here feels quite close to the Bard's own vision of old Verona.

Donald Mahoney is a writer and journalist based in Dublin.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

16 - 19 November, 2011

Produced by devise+conquer theatre company
In The Complex, Smithfield

Directed by Lianne O'Shea

Fight Director: Stav Dvorkin

Lighting Design: Colm Ivers

Set Designer: John Meany

With: Tara Conlon, Lloyd Cooney, John Currivan, John Doran, Finbarr Doyle, Stephen Jones, Conor Marren, Paul Marron, John Meany, Ann Russell, Paul Travers, Siobhan Whelan