Romeo and Juliet – September 2006

Experience: 8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Nancy Meckler

Venue: RST

Date: Thursday 14th September 2006

I’ve enjoyed Shared Experience’s work in the past in smaller venues, so I was looking forward to seeing what Nancy Meckler had done in the main house at Stratford. I wasn’t disappointed.

We had been warned that there was a framing device, a play outside the play, where a community was re-enacting the tragic deaths of Romeo and Juliet. The set emphasised this. At the back was a huge picture frame. A couple of trees at the sides gave the impression of an open-air venue, and there was a square platform for the action. This moved back during the vault scene to allow access to Juliet’s body. Overhead, a lighting rig ran diagonally across this smaller stage. Seats were provided at the sides for the ‘actors’ to rest on between scenes. There was even a little girl running around – obviously a family affair.

And given the Italian setting, it was a ‘family’ affair in more ways than one. Before the start, the ‘actors’ were getting ready, setting up the stage, getting into costumes, etc. The men were trying out the taps on their shoes, and some quarrel broke out. There was a bit of a scuffle, then the older and wiser men broke it up, but you could see there was still a lot of tension. Incidentally, the main agitator turned out to be the man playing Tybalt – so cast to type, then. I liked the way this suggested that the conflict the re-enactment was supposed to ease still lingered. People obviously hadn’t learned their lesson.

As tempers rose, the oldsters decided it was time for the men to hand in their weapons – a lovely piece of staging. It started off with knives being handed over (placed in a large blanket), then hand guns, then rifles. I was hoping they’d got the RSC to spring for a few Kalashnikovs, but apparently not. Anyway, once the armoury was put to one side, the ‘play’ could begin. (Later on, the ‘actor’ playing Tybalt was still angry enough to try and retrieve his weapon, but was stopped.)

One of the things I loved most about this production was the use of tap dancing to represent fighting. The men each had a staff they could bang on the ground, which with the sound of the taps got the action across beautifully. And the framing device allowed for it perfectly too – these people are not meant to be doing it for real. The choreography of the fights changed depending on who was fighting. Great stuff.

All the performances were good. I particularly liked Romeo, Juliet and the Friar. Romeo came across as a bit wimpish, still immature at times, yelping and squealing and whimpering like a child. But at other times he showed what a man he might have made. Juliet was still a child at the start, but with quick wits, and a temper! The relationship with the nurse was cosy and domestic at the start, but she actually hits her when she doesn’t get the news she wants quick enough. She matures even quicker than Romeo, and has to learn to handle her own emotions entirely from her own resources, as even the nurse can no longer help her. I found this a very moving performance. The Friar was a good counterpoint to last night’s Duke in Measure for Measure – this monk lays his plans, and then they all go horribly wrong – no rabbits get pulled out of his hat! When he’s telling his story at the end, he was more nervous than I’ve ever seen before in this part – and rightly so, considering what he’s been up to without the Duke’s knowledge.

I liked the use of a pillar of ladders for the balcony scene. It allowed for more movement in what can sometimes be a fairly static scene, and the lighting effects, with lights shining up from below, were lovely. It also meant an easier time for Romeo, as he didn’t have any precarious climbing to do. The apothecary appears from below (trapdoor), which worked well. There was a Shared Experience moment at the end, when all the stories are being told. The acting audience listens, and moves as one, slowly and steadily to observe each part of the tale. A nice touch, especially as we, the real audience, already know what’s happened, and can otherwise get a bit bored.

One thing that didn’t work for me was the use of the characters’ jackets to remind us of who’d been killed. When Mercutio and Tybalt die, their jackets are taken off and hung from the lighting rig. This was OK, but then when Paris is killed in the vault, the removal of his jacket was a bit clumsy and obvious, and there was no time to get it hung up. If I had to opt for one way or the other, I’d leave it out.

At the end, all the ‘actors’ shake hands and hug, indicating that perhaps the re-enactment has done its job and helped to bring the community together. But I couldn’t help noticing that Tybalt and some other of the younger men weren’t there – perhaps not a complete success, then. Unlike this production, which was.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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