The Shakespeare's Globe production of Romeo and Juliet kicks off with a lusty, full-band shanty performed by the whole cast and cuts abruptly to the Capulets and Montagues brawling in the street with Abraham's challenge to Sampson: "Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?"
The quick pacing rarely lets up for the rest of the play, helping to solve a dilemma faced by any company putting on one of the world's most beloved tragedies: How do you keep things exciting when everyone in the audience knows how it will end?
Of course the play requires stellar acting to lend fresh life to a script that has been remixed, reinterpreted, and at times mangled half to death by centuries' worth of pretenders — and the actors here are top-notch. But some of the most brilliant touches come from the behind-the-scenes artists: Composer Bill Barclay, Choreographer Siân Williams, Designer Andrew D. Edwards, and Costume Supervisor Sabrina Cuniberto.
Scene changes happen instantly, sometimes heralded by the sound of a chime from offstage or an actor throwing off a cape to take on a different role, and often the actors from one scene remain frozen onstage as the actors from the next walk around them. This leads to some striking moments in the beginning of the first act, before Romeo meets Juliet, when the two soon-to-be lovers sit beside each other on a bench without seeing one another.
The set is a two-tiered platform with the look of reclaimed wood. The costuming is minimalist, with the whole cast decked out in khakis and whites, the men nearly always bare-chested and showing off some delightfully anachronistic tattoos. A deft choice was putting Mercutio, Romeo's flamboyant and hot-headed best friend, in a loud Hawaiian shirt (seriously).
While Samuel Valentine and Cassie Layton deliver commanding performances as the star-cross'd lovers, the real star of the first act is Steffan Donnelly as Mercutio. The role calls for devilish charm as Mercutio chides the love-struck Romeo, and Donnelly pulls it off with perfect comedic timing. In a play that's become required reading for most high school students, Donnelly restores some of the bawdiness and fun that the Bard wove into the first act, whether he's strutting around taunting Tybalt or playing up one of the numerous dick jokes that your English teacher probably failed to point out.
The first act builds inexorably to violence, and the final minutes take on a suddenly dark tone as Mercutio's taunts bring out roaring menace and frightening physicality from Tybalt (Matt Doherty). Behind some impressive dual-swordplay, someone offstage starts beating a war drum, ramping up the intensity until Mercutio receives his fatal wound.
If the first half of the play belongs to Donnelly as Mercutio, the second belongs to Layton as Juliet. She spends the first half behaving convincingly as a lovestruck 14-year-old, but in the second, with blood now spilled and Romeo facing banishment, she takes on a frightening resolve to either live with her lover or die trying. Staggering around in Friar Laurence's chamber with a dagger to her wrist, she is suddenly calm and deadly serious. The eerie effect is amplified by the musical accompaniment of clanging bells and unearthly sounds produced by the players in the wings.
If you came into this play pondering the age-old English essay question of love versus lust in Romeo and Juliet, you move past it in the second half. Juliet is in love, and Layton imbues that love with a cold fury at their families' senseless feuding. "Alack, there lies more peril in thine eye," Romeo declares to Juliet, "than 20 of their swords." He says it in the first half of this production, but you believe it in the second.
This is Shakespeare as Shakespeare meant it: at turns ribald and religious, irreverent and deadly serious. Go see this play.