Rating ★★★★

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  • Venue: Brighton Media Centre
  • Director: Sharon Jennings
  • Producer: Fentiman Productions
  • Watch Zeffirelli’s 1968 film version of Romeo and Juliet carefully enough and for a few moments you’ll see an actress playing Rosaline, Romeo’s first love, at the Capulet ball.

  • Shakespeare hints that she may have spurned Romeo’s attentions or played too hard to get.

  • In one of many first-rate pieces of new writing at this year’s Brighton Fringe, Sharon Jennings spins a few Shakespearian fragments into Romeo and Rosaline, a set of parallel scenes in which Rosaline is shown to be ignorant of Romeo’s change of heart.

The ignorance is by no means blissful as Rosaline observes the frenzied message-taking to Mantua and agonises over its meaning. Alethea Steven is outstanding as the heroine and proves adept with the witty, ironic detachment running through her character. Confident of her powers of mimicry (and occasional pastiche), Jennings not only has the nerve to create the excellent cod- Shakespearean verse that is Romeo’s love poetry but then shows Rosaline subjecting it to remorseless deconstructive criticism.

There is not a slack moment in any of this and you feel that Jennings has had the self-discipline to murder her darlings. She also has the courage to end on a moment of anticlimax. As the (limited) action develops, more and more levels of dramatic irony open up according to how well you know Shakespeare’s text and plot. Alethea Steven is particularly impressive as she negotiates the subtleties of a character who frequently resolves to enter a nunnery only to reveal moments of great romantic ardour in which she is utterly convincing. She would be a shoo-in for somebody looking to cast Isabella in Measure for Measure.

The playwright directs her own work with a complete absence of the artifice which might have been tempting given the meta-theatrical nature of the whole undertaking. Jennings has an acute ear for period dialogue and in the past she has impressed while writing about Henry VIII visiting a former friend and courtier who has surprised his social circle by entering a Cathusian priory.

On this showing in Brighton, Jennings’s only weakness is clumsiness with sexual puns. The biggest compliment I can pay her is that like anybody in the audience I was seeing the parallel scenes in my mind’s eye and at all times these were vivid snatches of Baz Luhrmann’s definitive film treatment. I doubt if there was a better new work at the Brighton Fringe this year and the piece won an award from the city's premium newspaper.




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