The week in theatre: Romeo & Juliet; Richard III; Passing Strange review – no fault in these stars

<span>‘I have never heard “What’s in a name?” considered with such precise wonder’: Francesca Amewudah-Rivers as Juliet, with Kody Mortimer (camera operator) in Romeo & Juliet.</span><span>Photograph: Marc Brenner</span>
‘I have never heard “What’s in a name?” considered with such precise wonder’: Francesca Amewudah-Rivers as Juliet, with Kody Mortimer (camera operator) in Romeo & Juliet.Photograph: Marc Brenner

The theatrical air has lately been heavily charged with argument. Some of it horrible. Soon after announcing that Francesca Amewudah-Rivers had been cast as Juliet, alongside Tom Holland’s Romeo, the Jamie Lloyd Company put out a statement explaining that she had been subjected to a “barrage” of racism and misogyny online. Strong support for Amewudah-Rivers, who is black, came quickly, in an open letter with more than 800 signatories. But what really crushes the pathetic bullies is her performance. She is one of the best Juliets I have seen.

And what a production of Romeo & Juliet from shake-them-by-the-scruff-of-their-neck Lloyd, constantly turning expectations inside out. It is a marvellously young cast – Freema Agyeman’s cracklingly vivid Nurse is no clucking matron, but more like Anita in West Side Story; in his stage debut, Daniel Quinn-Toye brings wide-eyed pathos to unfortunate Paris – yet the predominant note is not exuberance but intensity. There is no clambering up balconies: some of the play is spoken without movement. Fights are blacked out (Jon Clark’s lighting is low, dusky) so that there is nothing between the flashpoint and the result: blood-drenched vests and an inert figure. There is no declamation, much intimate whispering (everyone is miked), yet never silence: sound design wizards Ben and Max Ringham send a drone, a note of constant low-level anxiety, throughout the action, sometimes quickening the alarm with a drumbeat.

No one is posh. Holland (who was Billy Elliot long before he was Spider-Man) is light but concentrated, not soggy with romanticism but slipping easily in and out of tears. Amewudah-Rivers is radiant, spirited – it is she who moves in for the first kiss – and incisive: I have never heard “What’s in a name?” considered with such precise wonder. Together they fizz, often humorously, pointing up the verse with 21st-century inflections: Romeo grins smugly as he hears himself being praised; Juliet flirts with a pretend sulk.

As in his production of Sunset Boulevard, Lloyd tracks the action with cameras, following characters on and offstage. Not always profitably. There is a magical cutaway to Holland on the theatre rooftop, in front of a neon sign spelling Mantua, but some closeups detract from the intimacy of real people talking in the dark. Yet Romeo and Juliet are undiminished: not “cut … out in little stars” but gleaming as big ones.

Graeae, the company founded to combat expectations of disabled artists, are preparing a production of Romeo and Juliet (13 Sept-26 Oct) with “an all-deaf, disabled and neurodivergent cast”. Meanwhile, Michelle Terry, the Globe’s artistic director, was greeted with a storm of protest when she announced she would play the lead in Richard III. The Disabled Artists Alliance declared: “This role belongs to us. It is offensive and distasteful for Richard to be portrayed by someone outside the community.”

I do not have a visible or hidden disability. I like to think that doesn’t drastically curtail my sympathies, but it obviously determines my perspective. I am clear that the stage has been depriving itself of the talent of disabled actors. Yet I am uneasy at the idea of any group of actors having exclusive rights to particular roles, and more convinced that bigger advances are made by routinely challenging the default casting for every character. Before the attack on Lloyd’s production, I had assumed it was taken for granted that white people (even Etonians) don’t have a prior claim to leading Shakespearean roles. It seems not.

In fact the accusation that Terry is mimicking disability is inaccurate. She neither limps nor capers, Olivier-style. The text of Elle While’s production has been stripped of references to crookedness and incomplete bodies: this is a drama about a charismatic bully. Of course there is loss – the probing of the difficult relationship between Richard’s sense of bodily impairment and his character – but an important element is illuminated. The largely female production (Helen Schlesinger with cockatoo hair and a City suit is a silky Buckingham) emphasises how time and again women, bereaved at Richard’s hands, coerced into being his bedfellow, tell the truth and are not heard.

Some odd Trump references are imported, unnecessarily but not discordantly. Terry – pumped-up doublet, gold trousers, pale wig, tiny finger gestures – makes the parallels plain: the wheedling command of a crowd, the bare-faced lies, the petulance, the brutal misogyny. Terry’s king is a lethal child. She outshines everyone else in a stimulating, patchy evening. Very Globe. As the rain dripped off the thatch of the roof, the groundlings gathered, hooded like druids in their plastic ponchos.

Last week, the Young Vic appointed a new artistic director: Nadia Fall, now running Stratford East, will take over from Kwame Kwei-Armah in January. Fall is from Southwark, with south Asian parents. Oh, and she’s not a bloke. Slowly, London theatres are becoming less white, less male. But let’s not make presumptions about the programming that will follow.

Passing Strange, the musical by Stew Stewart and Heidi Rodewald, seen on Broadway in 2008 and now having its European premiere, is about such presumptions. The title refers to Othello, whose exploits were “passing strange”, but also to “passing”. With a twist. The hero aims to pass not as white, but as a version of the black musician everyone expects: “Do you play jazz… play blues?” A middle-class adolescent who makes like he came from the ghetto, he strikes out from LA and a doting mother to, oh dear, find himself in Europe, where he also has to remake his own ideas about others. Liesl Tommy’s production offers pop-up 80s Amsterdamers and Berliners – fluorescent mohicans, ripped fishnets, performance work favouring lavatories – and an arch skit on the Nouvelle Vague. Thank God they didn’t get round to the Brits.

There are nimble slides in the lyrics: “a melody for every malady” and a beautifully relaxed, melodious performance from Giles (Hamilton) Terera. Yet the production never quite lands its art vs life message, while insistently making it. Overamplified music makes the evening boom but not soar.

Star ratings (out of five)
Romeo & Juliet
Richard III ★★★
Passing Strange ★★★