“Is love a tender thing?” Romeo asks early in the Shakespeare tragedy to which he and Juliet give their names. Not so much, according to the raw and riveting new production of “Romeo and Juliet” that opened Wednesday at the Almeida Theater here.
It’s no surprise that the courtship between the noble Romeo — here played by the sweet-faced Toheeb Jimoh, from TV’s “Ted Lasso” — and the teenage Juliet will end in calamity. But this production from Rebecca Frecknall — the buzzy British director whose shows tend to scoop up Olivier awards — treats the often overly familiar play as if it were entirely fresh, and the result is astonishing.
Filleting the text by nearly an hour so that it actually does equate to the Chorus’s promised “two hours’ traffic of our stage,” Frecknall brings to her first professional foray into Shakespeare the same pared-back, scalpel-sharp precision she has previously applied to Tennessee Williams and her still-running West End revival of “Cabaret,” which is rumored to be heading to New York next spring.
Her “Romeo and Juliet,” performed without an intermission, begins with the cast clawing feverishly at a stage wall, onto which are projected crucial lines from the prologue. But as if in haste to get straight to the meat of the play, the wall soon collapses to reveal the citizenry of Verona mid-combat. Danger, you feel from the start, is the default mode of a contemporary-seeming milieu amid which Juliet is described by her father as “a stranger in the world.” That is perhaps because she hasn’t yet experienced life’s abrasions; such an awareness will come — and how — with time.
“These violent delights have violent ends,” notes Friar Lawrence (the excellent Paul Higgins), in arguably the most prescient remark in the play. Barely have Romeo and Juliet been introduced before their existence seems threatened at every turn. At one point the Nurse (a booted Jo McInnes, herself a fine director) sits with her face in her hands, fearing the worst.
Elsewhere, Juliet’s father remarks to his daughter’s intended, Paris, that “we were born to die”— a comment that in this context has the force of prophecy. Jamie Ballard brings to Lord Capulet a roiling fury that seems to catch even his own wife off guard. What sort of father would deride his only child as “one too much?”
Amid such a toxic family, you can well imagine Juliet wanting the quickest way out, and Frecknall makes us aware of how the play is alive to the passage of time. “Wednesday’s tomorrow,” the Friar says in passing, noting a remorseless speed that seems to take everyone by surprise. The Friar is equally alert to the danger inherent in such impetuosity: “They stumble that run fast,” he cautions as the lovers hurtle toward the abyss.
Frecknall has a background in movement, and her “Romeo and Juliet” often feels halfway toward dance-theater, including generous borrowings from Prokofiev’s celebrated ballet score for this very play.
A male ensemble, including key characters like Benvolio (Miles Barrow) and Jyuddah Jaymes’s feral Tybalt, moves in undulating rhythms, dropping to the floor of Chloe Lamford’s set and back up again. Jonathan Holby’s fight direction introduces a gun into the arsenal of knives that does away with Jack Riddiford’s charismatic Mercutio, here an insolent provocateur who has barely spoken the Queen Mab speech before he disappears. The rules governing this fearsome group of men render no one safe amid the comparably merciless glare of Lee Curran’s shifting bank of lights toward the rear of the stage.
The fast-rising Jimoh, a 2022 Emmy nominee, brings to the stage the same ready likability familiar from his turn as Sam Obisanya in “Ted Lasso.” What astonishes here is the ease with which he emotionally opens himself up to Juliet, only to realize too late that the options available to this couple are running out. It’s fascinating, too, to see the balcony scene reconfigured so that Romeo is perched atop a ladder addressing Juliet center-stage, flipping the play’s iconic imagery.
Referencing “this world-wearied flesh,” Jimoh’s Romeo sounds like an embryonic Hamlet. Hainsworth, for her part, played Hermia, a young lover with a similarly unforgiving father in the Bridge Theater’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” several years ago. Juliet is a far larger role, and the actress sometimes disappears so far inside her character’s grief that the language itself gets muddied, or lost. (Hainsworth will reunite with Frecknall in an adaptation of Federico García Lorca’s “The House of Bernarda Alba” for the National Theater in November.)
But I’ve rarely heard an audience as attentive as the Almeida’s was when Hainsworth’s guttural sorrow gave way to a startlingly vivid suicide, from which several playgoers around me visibly recoiled.
You may not be surprised to learn that Frecknall closes the play with Juliet’s despairing deed. Once you’ve restored death’s sting, all that’s left is silence.
Romeo and Juliet
Through July 29 at the Almeida Theater in London; https://almeida.co.uk/