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Theatre: Romeo and Juliet at The Gate - Dull lovers dim Verona


Fra Fee and Lauren Coe in Wayne Jordan's imaginative post-modern take on the lovers of Verona at the Gate. Photo:  Pat Redmond

Fra Fee and Lauren Coe in Wayne Jordan's imaginative post-modern take on the lovers of Verona at the Gate. Photo: Pat Redmond

Peter Sheridan, having a laugh in his one-man show

Peter Sheridan, having a laugh in his one-man show

Fra Fee and Lauren Coe in Wayne Jordan's imaginative post-modern take on the lovers of Verona at the Gate. Photo: Pat Redmond

Shakespeare didn't give the young lovers much of a chance. But when you position Romeo in the middle of the auditorium, around which he scampers from point to point, popping up (but not very visibly) in odd places to yell at Juliet, standing stock-still on an empty stage (pretty underwear, though), you have a love scene that is as ludicrously unemotional as it is theatrically incompetent.

It just might have worked had the actors been more in tune with what they were supposed to be doing; but neither Lauren Coe (Juliet) nor Fra Fee (Romeo) gives any impression then or throughout the play that the text of the most famous love story in history means anything other than a load of verse to be got through as best they can.

It's a common fault with younger actors, and in this case it almost manages to destroy Wayne Jordan's imaginative post-modern take on the lovers of Verona for the new Gate production in Dublin of Romeo and Juliet. It's a supreme example of glamorous, exciting form over a substance that butchers the glory of the language.

It opens on a light-filled stage in true West Side Story style, with the gangs costumed in exuberant primary colours performing an athletic prologue that sets the stage for the Capulet ball, here an animal-themed masque magnificently costumed by Catherine Fay. We'd be down to earth with a bang when the uninspiring lovers catch their first glimpse of each other were it not for an interesting sub-plot introduced by Jordan: Juliet's beautiful harridan of a mother (a coldly tempestuous Natalie Radmall-Quirke) is having a bit on the side with Tybalt, who just happens to be her nephew: a sly depiction of the corruption in the city that is perhaps at the root of the young couple's ultimate tragedy.

The street fight in which Mercutio is knifed and Romeo sees off Tybalt is a joy to watch, largely thanks to the evening's two most impressive performances from Tadhg Murphy as a coiled and explosive Mercutio and Ian Toner as the would-be rational Tybalt.

For the rest, Mark Lambert is an endearingly addled Friar Laurence, with Simon O'Gorman as an unsettlingly ferocious Capulet (no indulgent father he), Michael James Ford as Montague, and Ruth McGill as a slightly scatty nurse.

Ciaran O'Melia's palely luminous spare set (Inspired by the late Patrick Scott's Gold Paintings) is a star in itself, given wonderfully sunny Italian resonance by Sinead Wallace's lighting; while Emma Martin's lively choreography does to some extent make up for the lead actors' inability to bring the exquisitely romantic text to life.

If Joyce's The Dead is arguably the greatest short story ever written in English, it's equally arguable that Frank O'Connor's stories of childhood are certainly Ireland's best-loved. And deservedly: there is an overwhelming indignant charm in O'Connor's child's voice. This is the little person's perspective on life: outrage, bewilderment, contempt, amusement and even sympathy for the impenetrable, impregnable, idiotic adult world: all are caught to perfection.

Reading them, we shrink to three feet tall, looking up at these large aliens who so unjustifiably wield all power, and we shake our wise six-year-old heads at their stupid headstrong fallibility.

And initially a stage adaptation of the three best known stories My Oedipus Complex, The Genius, and the immortal First Confession, might seem like another unwise adult notion, especially when they are "played" by three galumphing adults. Those who revel in the perfection of the stories all have their own internal voice for Michael, Larry, and Jackie, the miniature protagonists, and we fear the outsider's sword, even if it is a wooden one.

But Patrick Talbot has managed to keep the voice alive in his adaptation, and has directed his cast of three so that their wide-eyed innocence would melt the proverbial heart of stone. Perhaps breaking the stories up so that they are interwoven does interfere slightly with the delicacy of the flow, but it also makes for the required variation for theatre.

Shane Casey is Michael, Gary Murphy is Larry, and Ciaran Bermingham is Jackie in a gently overpowering set (that small perspective again) by Jim Queally. God Bless the Child is at the Gaiety in Dublin, and has yet to tour to the Everyman in Cork, the Town Hall in Galway, and the Lime Tree in Limerick.

It's the way he tells 'em, as a comedian of considerably less charm than Peter Sheridan used to say of himself. Sheridan has been on a roll for a number of years with his one-man shows, which hover somewhere (extremely comfortably and easily) between stand-up, memoir, and theatre/cabaret. And they're a knock-out.

The current one is Are You Havin' a Laugh? (at Bewley's Café Theatre playing at Powerscourt centre in Dublin.) And he bases it, he claims, on having frequently been questioned about, and lauded on, the "Dub" sense of humour. He has decided, he says, that our lop-sided and laconic humour comes from having maliciously decided to get our own back on the Brits by thinking in Irish, and therefore speaking in garbled English that leaves them (the Brits) floundering. He calls it Gaelic Brain, and ponders as to whether Beckett, for instance, was having a laugh with "Godot". Did he, wonders our Peter, mean "go deo"?

And then there's the straight answer: there isn't one in Gaelic. "Are you now, or were you ever a member of the Provisional IRA?" Answer "no." Thinking Gaelic, however, renders it as meaning "yes." Except nobody, least of all a Brit, is meant to cop on to that.

Is he being nasty? He's not capable of it: the magic of Sheridan's humour is its tranquillity, the acid rejoinder not very successfully masking a heart that refuses to get flurried. And in presenting anecdotes from his fondly remembered inner-city Dublin childhood as personal memories, there's a suspicion that they're well-worn, and not just in his own family. In other words, we've heard them before! But they surely bear repeating.

And then there are the anecdotes, to which a theatre-goer like myself can attest the honesty, as they are the bar-room stories of many of theatre's characters from an era when even the rehearsal room was a colourful place, usually due to a superfluity of Uncle Arthur. Happy days, you might say. And Sheridan makes them so, in a nostalgic, mischievous fifty minutes of pure joy.

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