One of the best things you can say about a Shakespeare production is that it makes you hear familiar lines with fresh ears. This reviving experience happens so often in Rupert Goold’s RSC Romeo and Juliet—now playing in rep at the Park Avenue Armory—you wonder how other directors could have missed all the nuances he uncovers. Goold and his ferociously intelligent actors don’t take any character, scene, or speech for granted, and with the clichés scraped off, the play pulses with a wanton, death-haunted vitality. This is the finest Romeo and Juliet anyone’s likely to see in New York for a while.
Normally, this is the part of the review that sketches the plot. But everybody knows what Romeo and Juliet is about—and that’s one of the obstacles to staging it. Wittily acknowledging this problem, Goold turns the play’s prologue into the recorded audio guide toted by a tourist through a cathedral—reminding us of our cultural distance from both R and J’s hot-blooded Italian setting and Shakespeare’s equally tumultuous time.
We quickly shift back in time, while the action jumps into the present tense: Goold’s mixed-period Verona is adrenaline-shot, always on the verge of erupting into uncivil brawls. Clad in severe Spanish-inflected Renaissance costumes, the supporting players are perennially spoiling for a streetfight. Sharply contrasted with this antique surround, Romeo and Juliet (Sam Troughton and Mariah Gale), garbed in grungy-cool hipster duds, are modern lovers trapped by archaic conventions.
Combustible feelings of all kinds arise from these combustible streets. Fire is a constant presence, suggesting the era’s feverish religious persecutions and the two lovers’ quick-igniting passions. Goold keeps pace with Shakespeare’s headlong dramaturgy, deploying running entrances, pounding drums, and rapid-fire verse-speaking—but never sacrifices meaning or meter.
Any Romeo and Juliet soars or stumbles with the actors in the title roles. This company is blessed with two performers capable of thinking and feeling as nimbly as the volatile characters they portray. Surfing the movement of Shakespeare’s fervid verse, they frequently surprise themselves and us with where they end up. When Gale says her bounty is as boundless as the sea, she abruptly half-sobs with the terrifying realization that her ardor truly has no limits—revealing the reeling abyss beneath the romantic lines. Thanks to Troughton’s limpid clarity we can see the transformative instant when real poetry and real love align for Romeo: “It is my lady. It is my love.”
It’s tempting to tick off the theatrical traps Goold neatly sidesteps: Instead of a tedious set-piece, the Capulet ball becomes an ecstatic, primal ritual mingling Moorish and Flamenco rhythms; Mercutio’s death isn’t the result of an over-choreographed swordfest, but an accidental product of edgy teasing pushed too far—he laughs at his own demise. Highlighting the lovers’ morbid imagery, Goold reminds us their love’s unhappy end is figured in its joyful beginnings. You could wish he’d cut a little more—the production nudges three hours—but this is vivid, carnal Shakespeare, beautifully spoken and thoughtfully realized.