By William Shakespeare
Directed by Neil Bartlett
Venue: Courtyard Theatre
Date: Wednesday 3rd December 2008
We attended a director’s talk before the show which was very illuminating. He was very emphatic that this play is not about a clash of different cultures. The “two households, both alike in dignity” were very similar families, and with similar attitudes. They set out to show this quite deliberately. Casting a black actress as Juliet was accidental in that sense – he went for the best actress to get the qualities he wanted and it just so happened she was black, but he hadn’t noticed until someone asked him about it.
This Lady Capulet is very unhappy, and apparently we will see that in this production. Capulet has three opportunities to go to bed with her, and avoids all of them. That’s the reason Romeo and Juliet get on so well so quickly – both come from identical circumstances, so they’re in sync from the word go. We were told to watch when each child is with their parents – they don’t speak to their parents much, if at all. Both are only children, and both carry the full weight of family and society’s expectations.
Shakespeare tells us twice that Juliet is thirteen (which may have been Susannah’s age) – why does he do this? Neil reckons she’s at an age where her parents need to do something about her before she grows old enough to make up her own mind.
He was asked about the choice of setting, and he thinks the play needs to be set in Italy. It’s a country ruled by religion, with a very conservative society. The time is the 1940s, but not a specific year. All the women are very sexy, helped by the costumes, which appear demure but are actually very sexy.
In the original story, the priest is forgiven, while the nurse is hung (‘twas ever thus, he murmured). However, he pointed out that this priest is not very upright; he does a lot of lying, as do the others of course. He wanted to get across a society in which violence was a “normal” part of society, where young men hung around on street corners looking for a fight. In our culture, carrying a knife is weird. In Verona, knives are normal. The violence is technically illegal, but happens a lot because everyone is keen on it. Problems only occur when it goes wrong. It’s a macho culture where men expect to fight each other and treat women as possessions. The characters think that violence is sexy, but the director doesn’t.
The language was mentioned. He said any Renaissance text has language difficulties, and this is not a naturalistic drama. The casting of the two leads was intuitive. They have to have good technical skills, as the parts are vocally demanding, and to get across the idea of two sexually inexperienced young people.
Asked about the connection between love and death, he said he wasn’t conscious of it. He let things come out, and audience can decide for themselves.
Were there tragic flaws in the lead characters, or was the tragedy due to the other characters? Not in the characters themselves, but there are structural problems in the families and religious ideologies. Basically, there was no place for these young people in Verona.
He told us the story of how one marketing chap had asked him if the play had any sex or violence! Have you read the play? was about the only response he could think of.
Now for the play itself. It wasn’t a full house tonight, though there were plenty of school parties.
The whole production was very gray, white and black. I had some problems distinguishing the characters at first because of this, though fortunately I knew what the leads looked like, and knowing the play as well as we do we could work it out pretty quickly. The set consisted of a black wooden floor, with a back wall that was part rough brickwork, part smooth buttresses. For the final scene, the side sections were swung round to form part of the side walls of the tomb, while the central panel rose up to create a high doorway, through which Juliet’s bed, surrounded by a railing, was wheeled onto the stage. For the balcony scene, there was no balcony, which was interesting. Instead Juliet’s bed, with high brass header and footer, was placed centre stage and the rest was up to our imaginations. Good call.
The opening chorus was done using most of the company, and when it was over they took to the chairs at the back to wait for their turn in the fight. I often like this approach, and it was OK here, but it was only used this once so didn’t really add to the production overall. For some reason, the servants who start it all had a radio with them, and turned it on and off. The asides were done with the rest of the action frozen, and sometimes an actor would snap their fingers to get things going again, but here it seemed to be the radio that did that function. With the fight well underway, a telephone was used to summon Capulet and Montague to the fray. The women joined in the fighting, which is clearly a widespread pastime, enjoyed by much of society.
I was very aware that Mr. and Mrs. Capulet have spent very little time with their daughter. The nurse’s comment about them being in Mantua when Juliet was weaned really brought that home. The nurse (Julie Legrand) was very good, the best performance along with Romeo (David Dawson). Juliet (Anneika Rose) was also pretty good – a bit weaker vocally, but she got her emotions across reasonably well. The nurse was especially good when she delivered the news about Tybalt’s death and Romeo’s subsequent banishment. For once, it was clear that it wasn’t clear; that the way the nurse was telling it, it was natural that Juliet would misunderstand at first.
A microphone was used during the party scene – why? It didn’t add anything and was cumbersome to bring on and off, though the photography session with all the guests lined up for a group photo was OK. It allowed Romeo and Juliet to have a few minutes alone together, out of time.
We got the second prologue which is almost always cut – I’m not actually sure if I’ve ever seen it before – and was between the end of the party and Mercutio and Benvolio’s attempts to find Romeo. This time it consisted of the spare women removing the chairs and bringing on Juliet’s bed, and giving us the prologue as they did so. I’m not sure it helped the play particularly, but then it was so novel I would need time to get used to it. We were warned it would be done tonight; I just didn’t know where it came.
During Juliet’s scene before her second wedding – the potion scene – both Steve and I thought she’d taken the stuff before she went through all the possible ways it could go wrong, so I put some of her emotional state down to the fact that she’d already taken an irrevocable step, and possibly even to the effects of the draught itself. However, she then drank it off again in the usual place, so either she had two healthy swigs from a small bottle, or she didn’t actually go the distance the first time round. This could be made clearer.
When she talked about all the ghosts she might encounter when she wakes up in the tomb, various cast members drifted onto the stage, including Tybalt. When this had happened before, during the post-nuptials scene, I found it distracting. The extras were required to help Romeo leap from Juliet’s bed to the ground below and then to remove the bed, but I found it intrusive and clumsy to have them there. This time, although I found it intrusive to begin with, once I realised that they represented the family ghosts in the vault, it worked well for me.
We also got the musicians in full tonight, and at the end of that bit one of the musicians lingered behind to become Balthazar and deliver the bad news to Romeo. With the understudy playing Tybalt as well as his usual role of the apothecary, we had the interesting sight of the murdered man reappearing at the back of the stage, blood still evident on his shirt, putting on the apothecary’s white coat to sell his killer the poison that will exact his revenge. It was a nice touch, and a fortuitous one. For the first time ever that I’ve seen, Lady Montague was present for the final scene in the tomb – this avoids an unnecessary distraction, I feel – and I realised tonight that the friar’s recapitulation of the story was essential, not for the audience, assuming we’ve been awake and paying attention, but for its effect on the people there in the tomb.
At the end, I wasn’t sure how genuine the reconciliation between Capulet and Montague would be. With such a negative take on this society, such a “positive” outcome seemed a little perverse, and I could even see the possibility of both men rejecting the idea and continuing the feud. I was also aware that these two noble houses hadn’t just lost two of their children, they’d lost their entire future, as neither family had an heir. So any reconciliation, however genuine, would be hollow. However, as the two men hugged in joint commiseration, I was reminded of Leontes and Polixenes in A Winter’s Tale, and it seemed fitting that these two men should be ‘brothers’ again, as they may have been before.
In the director’s talk before the show, Neil Bartlett had talked about not liking productions which told the audience what to think. I couldn’t help feeling as I watched this performance that he’d fallen into the very same trap himself. In deciding so much about the play, and in some areas apparently judging the characters and the choices they make, he seems to have fallen out of sync with Will, who never seems to judge and who usually gives us at least two sides to everything. (Often it’s more like three or four, but then you see another one, and another. Why else do we keep coming back to these plays?) Because of these judgements, I found myself out of sympathy with the characters so much tonight that I was willing, nay wanting, Romeo and Juliet to die horribly so that we could all go home. I’m more accustomed to having a little sniffle somewhere in the finishing straight; this time it was all I could do to stay in my seat for the last half hour.
The performances. I’ve already mentioned the nurse and Juliet. Romeo was very good, though with less emotional input than I’m used to; more thinking than feeling, but at least I was clear about his character and emotional journey. I felt the friar was too theatrical, especially during the post-exile scene with Romeo. Romeo was speaking remarkably calmly and making a lot of sense, expressing his emotions and thoughts very clearly. The friar was raving and gesticulating wildly, looking the very picture of a mad fool which he paints of Romeo, so for once the friar seemed to be the immature one needing help from the wiser young man. Yet I was also aware that it’s the friar who points out to Romeo the positive perspective which Juliet has found for herself – that Romeo’s alive and Tybalt, who wanted to kill him, is dead. The friar seemed to be in another play at this point, and with David Dawson having played Smike in Nicholas Nickleby at Chichester, I decided that the overacting going on in the friar’s performance would have fitted very nicely into the Crummles’ production style. At times it bordered on hammy, though it never quite crossed that line. I assumed this was the manifestation of the director’s view that this was not a naturalistic piece of work, though usually I find the language does all that for you and semaphore practice is not required.
I found Lady Capulet’s accent (the actress is Hungarian) a distraction, as it took some time for me to get the hang of it, and I lost a lot of her lines because of it. Mercutio was quite good, especially in the Queen Mab speech, but alas his role was cut short, as usual. Although I liked his performance, I felt his character didn’t matter so much in this play, where all but the leads and nursy were remarkably undifferentiated. It’s as if none of these people mattered all that much, it was Verona itself that killed them all – a touch of Fuente Ovejuna – but here it doesn’t seem to help the play, leaving it remarkably cold. For such a passionate people, with love, sex, fighting and vendettas constantly on the agenda, that seems inappropriate.
The fight scenes weren’t entirely convincing, but that may be partly because of the understudy, so no criticism intended. The finger clicking to restart the action or denote a change of scene, usually when the scenes were being overlapped, was too erratic to be effective. On the whole, I found that the strange mixture of realism – costumes, knives, music, etc – jarred with the stylistically heightened acting, so that I could never fully engage with the production. I actually felt the Victorian type of ending, as depicted by Dickens, would work just as well here, as so many of the characters came across as clowns. Paris, for example, with his suit and little ‘tache, reminded me of Captain Darling from Blackadder 4, and his behaviour suggested the similarity may not have been accidental. It’s possible that this production works much better on a proscenium arch stage; if so, I hope they adjust rapidly, as we’re due to see this again during the Winter School, and I’m not sure how I’ll handle it if there aren’t some changes. [Didn’t get to see it again, in fact]
© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me
[…] in our modern cities was, if anything, banal, but it is interesting to see that, in my notes for an RSC touring production ten years ago, the director, Neil Bartlett, commented that it wasn’t normal for people to carry knives in our […]