Two households both alike in dignity? More like two halves of completely different tone and quality. After all the hoo-ha about shared light, new ENO chief Daniel Kramer kicks off Emma Rice's final season with a Romeo and Juliet that tries to bungee back from the brink, swinging the play from larks to despair. What seems like friendly banter between rivalrous factions – all foam baseball bat beatings and bitten thumbs – escalates out of nowhere the moment Tybalt whips out a gun. Cue revenge, cue dead teens. With two black nukes hanging over the Globe's stage, this is an arms race and no mistake: the Veronan Missile Crisis made flesh.
Kramer's instinct is right. Romeo and Juliet does hinge on a handbrake turn. (The director Robert Icke once likened it to "an episode of Friends where Joey gets shot in the head halfway through.") His approach, however, is all over the shop. Rather than wring the comedy out of the first half, his laughs all come at the play's expense.
Essentially, Kramer's staging hands Shakespeare to street clowns. His cast are in white-face, and they're goofing around, almost refusing, point blank, to take the play seriously. His young lovers, for starters, are played by forty-somethings and lampooned. Ed Hogg's Romeo mopes on in a black beanie and eyeliner, a stormcloud of a kid with "a soul of lead" – Rom-Emo, more like, and very funny too. Kirsty Bushell's Juliet, meanwhile, is a feisty young thing in hefty Dr Martens who honks and scoffs at the prospect of marriage. In an over-jovial ball – partying in the shadow of nuclear extinction – they alone seem appropriately dressed: both in Day of the Dead gothic chic.
However, it's hard not to shake the feeling that #TEAMRICE is out to make its mark on the Globe – like squatters facing forceful eviction. Kramer throws so much tech and so many tricks at the first half that it comes out a complete shambles: a stageful of LOLS in search of a story. He bungs Godzilla, Goofy and Elphaba into his ball, and has it break into a mass "YMCA". Sexy PVC showgirls (and boys) shake their asses by strobe to pulsing house tunes. Daddy Capulet seems to swing both ways. In public.
Almost every other line gets twisted into a gag, most against their will, and there are so many c**k jokes (well, there's one stuck on repeat) that even the groundlings give up on them. It's so strained, so desperate to please – Hogg and Bushell excepted – that it loses all sense: a play made of moments, not momentum. Seriously, though: how do you render Romeo and Juliet incomprehensible? It's as simple a plot as Shakespeare ever wrote. It's not that Kramer doesn't trust the text. It's that he's actively p**sing all over it.
I so loathed the first half that I left my balcony seat, and spent the second half in the pit. Suddenly, the show starts to make sense. Soutra Gilmour's nukes are aimed right at the groundlings, and, from below, her black netting becomes cobwebby and foreboding. Rather than clumsily staining the stage, Charles Balfour's colour-block lights catch the smoke in the air. All the endless running around that, from above, seemed aimless and restless starts to seem energised and engaged. Even the artifice of the acting style works up-close. It connects with an audience less fussed by meaning than feeling. But the Globe holds 1,500, only 700 of whom stand. Play to the cheap seats by all means, but neglecting the rest is criminal.
It helps that Kramer's show settles and starts taking itself seriously. After the frenzy of violence, he drives towards tragedy, smartly splitting scenes to speed through to the end. Romeo and the Nurse (Blythe Duff) learn of Juliet's ‘death' simultaneously, just as Harish Patel's Friar Lawrence's FedEx returns to its sender, and it's an intriguing (if glossily superficial) textual twist to have Romeo turn lone gunman at the end. Given such liberties, then, it makes no sense at all that Juliet still tries to lick the poison from her lover's lips – moments after he's shot himself.
That's symptomatic of a production that gives up on truth for the sake of effect, and if Kramer's upping the ante on an internal arms race, flexing his arsenal, the impact is devastating – and not in a good way.