By William Shakespeare
Directed by Rupert Goold
Venue: Courtyard Theatre
Date: Monday 29th March 2010
This was an interesting experience. Steve and I have seen so many Shakespeare productions that we can no longer hope for that wonderful experience of seeing a play of his for the first time (Cardenio excepted, possibly). Tonight, however, we were treated to a rare thing, a performance of the RSC’s production of The Comedy of Romeo and Juliet. It’s possible of course that Rupert Goold was simply trying to stage that well known, but sadly lost piece, Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter, but with no extant text had to base it on the closely related Romeo and Juliet with which many of us are familiar, and simply add as much comedy as he could. Or, of course, he was trying to do the Romeo and Juliet, but chose to go for every cheap laugh available, leading to a diminished sense of the tragedy (what am I saying, diminished? The only tragedy was that the performance lasted three hours and twenty minutes, about three hours and ten minutes too long!), and establishing such a comedic perspective that I was seeing jokes all the way through, and doing my best not to laugh out loud at them. (Didn’t quite manage that – sorry.)
Let me give an example. When Juliet’s ‘body’ was discovered, the nurse was so upset she just stood still. Lady Capulet, on the other hand, after the first shock, apparently remembered that she hadn’t done her daily workout yet, and ran round the stage for several laps before collapsing in a heap. Steve reckoned she was training for the marathon, though on this evidence she wouldn’t make it to the first refreshment point. I found myself thinking that the RSC might be going in for a new form of Shakespeare-related merchandising – the Lady Capulet fitness DVD, perhaps?
And another one: when the modern-dress police turned up at the tomb to investigate the multiple homicide, complete with walkie-talkies and apparently unfazed by the fact that most of the suspects, and indeed the victims, were in Elizabethan fancy dress, I fully expected a forensics team to walk on set and start taking photos, look for blood spatter, etc.
And that wouldn’t have been out of keeping with this production. The opening request for the audience to turn off, not shoot, not record, etc, was made by Noma Dumezweni, dressed in a suit and using a Caribbean accent. The set, as far as I could see at this point, consisted of some gates at the back of the thrust, some kind of opening above, and an ironwork window pattern in the centre of the stage, courtesy of a single light. The use of church music beforehand set the scene very well, and it became clear after Noma’s announcement that she was a guide in some cathedral or other. When Sam Troughton arrived in his modern clothes, including a hoodie, and carrying a camera, she gave him a headphone set for the audio tour. He had to fiddle with it a bit to get the English version, and then that was how the prologue was given. Neat. After he wandered off to explore more of the building, the actors for the first scene arrived, and went straight into the thumb-biting scenario (Samson and Gregory didn’t get a chance to puzzle us all at the start with their dextrous word-play around the word ‘choler’). The fight soon escalated, and Benvolio, doing his best to stop it all, ended up tied to a stake in the middle of the stage with a cloth stuffed in his mouth. Tybalt was about to set it on fire (eugh! Just how nasty do you have to be to get the point across?) when the principals in this conflict turned up. Sadly, this didn’t help, since they pitched in as well, and even the Ladies got into a cat fight (a pretty pathetic one, mind you). When the Duke finally got there, we went from truly nasty to comedy, as the clatter of weapons being dropped on his command goes on, and on, and on. Capulet in particular never left the house without a good dozen knives secreted about his person. Sitting down must be a precarious thing to do – he could easily stab himself in the groin.
This humour was OK, but already it was undercutting the seriousness of the situation; it was hard to tell whether the warring families are in Apocalypse Now or Love Thy Neighbour. [After the understudies performance, I realised that the attempt to fry Benvolio happened after Montague and Capulet joined in, and some petrol was poured over Benvolio first from a can. Also Tybalt had previously lit a match and thrown it down on the grill in the centre, causing a huge flame to flare up.]
With the factions sent packing, and only the Montagues left on stage, the next bit of dialogue was badly delivered – I know roughly what they’re saying, but tonight it just didn’t come across. Once Romeo arrived, the delivery improved, but sadly Benvolio was being played as a buffoon, and again this weakened the performance. In fact, just about every character was played as a buffoon, the lovers and possibly Paris and the friar excepted, which boosted the comedy alright, but…..well, I think my views on this point are already well established.
Sam Troughton’s Romeo still had the camera, and it was put to good use in this scene, with Romeo showing Benvolio the picture of his love (Rosaline) on the screen, and Benvolio using the camera to take a picture of a woman in the audience to show Romeo that his love wasn’t the only beauty around. This bit of humour also worked well, with Romeo holding out his hand in apology to the audience lady when he compared her unfavourably to his love.
There was a good deal of overlapping of scenes in this production – it’s a tried and tested method for speeding things up, and can provide some interesting juxtapositions – and I think this may have happened when Capulet arrived on stage for his next scene before Romeo and Benvolio have left. Played by Richard Katz, Capulet is another weak interpretation (I blame the director), played more for comedy than gravitas. Peter was sitting on the steps which were pushed through the gates, and the humour of his performance when he was given the task of inviting the guests to Capulet’s party was entirely appropriate and very well done. His cringing attempt to get noticed by Romeo and Benvolio was very funny, as was Romeo’s blatant reaction to seeing the name ‘Rosaline’ on the guest-list. When Peter mentioned the name Montague, he hawked and spat superbly, so no prizes for guessing where his loyalties lay.
After they left, Lady Capulet appeared at the upper balcony, with several makeup artists whose help she evidently needs. Her hair was a mess, she was only partly dressed, and to be frank, she wasn’t looking her best. As they got to work, the nurse below summoned Juliet, who came on carrying something strange, a three foot long piece of rope with a light at the end – some new-fangled toy, I expect. She started twirling this around, casually at first, but with increasing vigour as the conversation went in directions she found unpleasant, and even raised it above her head when things got really bad and marriage was mentioned. As a way of showing her inner sulky brat, it worked quite well, though it was a bit distracting, and meant she never showed us her relationship with her nurse which usually gets its first outing in this scene. Noma did her best with the nurse’s part, but against the whirling she was a bit low-key. Also, I wondered if she’d been smoking the old wacky-baccy in her pipe, as her manner suggested a relaxed calm not entirely at odds with such a practice. But there was no other indication, so perhaps I just made it up. By the end of the scene, Lady Capulet was looking much better, and that’s about all I can remember from that bit.
The next scene brought on Mercutio for the first time, with the challenge of the Queen Mab speech. We both like Jonjo O’Neill, and have seen him give any number of good performances, so we don’t mean it unkindly when we say that we were both heartily glad to see the back of this Mercutio. His going, normally a cause for grief, was a real blessing tonight. He wasn’t too bad in this scene, admittedly, although the policy of encouraging some of the actors to exaggerate their natural accents, presumably for comic effect, can lead to many of the lines being unintelligible, and so it was with Mercutio. I did get his point that dreams are nothing, mere fantasy, so the speech wasn’t completely wasted.
And now for the party. Forget the dialogue, this was all about the dancing and music, of which we got plenty. So much so, that most of Capulet’s lines were lost, though the way he held a dagger to Tybalt’s throat conveyed his point well enough. I found myself wondering if there were film influences here that I wasn’t aware of – Romeo + Juliet, perhaps. I definitely had the feeling that I was missing something.
Only Romeo and Juliet themselves were allowed space and silence in this scene to deliver their dialogue, which they did very well, and at this point I had high hopes that this production might work out fine. Juliet had seen Romeo a couple of times during the dancing and shown no interest in him that I could see, so it was a bit of a surprise that she suddenly got into kissing mode with him, but that’s young love for you. They both showed clear reactions to finding out who the other was, and we were set up nicely for their balcony scene.
Unfortunately we had to put up with Mercutio and Benvolio again for a bit. With Mercutio having so few lines, this part usually doesn’t take long, but tonight we were ‘treated’ to as unnecessary a chunk of ‘comic’ business as you could wish not to see. For some reason, Mercutio had to emphasise that he was talking about Romeo screwing his love – at this time they still think it’s Rosaline he’s in love with. Starting with hand gestures, he went from a finger-fuck to an arm, then his whole body climbed inside – much laughter from the younger section of the audience – then there was a surreal sequence where he appeared to be having a cup of tea in the party in her uterus, then he kissed somebody (was he meant to be a sperm that’s come into contact with an egg?), and that scared him so much he ran back out of the vagina, falling flat on the floor from a fart, whether vaginal or anal I couldn’t say. One or two bits of this were mildly funny, but it went on far too long for us.
Fortunately, the scene between Romeo and Juliet was clear and uncluttered by this inappropriate and over-fussy business. Juliet appeared at the upper level, simply standing or sitting with her legs dangling over the edge. Romeo started at the stairs at the front of the stage, then moved around a bit, finally climbing the trellis to claim his snog. In fact, they might have had the wedding night a day early, the way these two were carrying on, but Juliet is a good girl, and pushed him away. This was very well done, and was starting to get me involved, and if they can build on these bits and drop the rubbish encrusting the play, they might do very well. We can only hope.
The next scene introduced Friar Laurence, and Forbes Masson did a perfectly acceptable job with the meddling friar. I did think his displays of temper were a bit out of kilter with his words of moderation, but not enough to give me a problem. Romeo’s change of attitude was remarkable. He arrived on a bicycle, and was full of enthusiasm. Friar Laurence was initially concerned to hear that Rosaline was, like, so yesterday’s news. He even slapped Romeo’s face where he could still see the tear stain, while Romeo’s blank reaction when the Friar mentioned Rosaline’s name was perfect. But after some time to think, the Friar saw the possibilities in the marriage between the feuding families, and agreed to help them out.
Next Mercutio and Benvolio waited for Romeo, and the only thing I got from the dialogue was that Mercutio seemed to be criticising Tybalt, and perhaps others, for faults that were more part of his character than anyone else’s, as of course he does later when he accuses Benvolio of being quarrelsome. When Romeo cycled in, he sparred with Mercutio in a much livelier way, not that I could follow half of it, but it’s clear that he’s back to the Romeo of old, full of wit and spirit. The nurse turned up with Peter, and again the sexual innuendo of Mercutio’s insults to her are emphasised, with him calling her a whore many times over. She was wonderfully funny in her non-delivery of Juliet’s message, and in her readiness to dash off as soon as Romeo has told her he protests. Strangely, some lines that are often included seemed to be dropped, while lines I haven’t heard before, about Romeo and rosemary both starting with the letter ‘R’, were included. God knows why, as I couldn’t see what they were getting at, and the nurse simply pulled out of that conversation and leaves. Bizarre.
For the Nurse’s return to Juliet, there was a platform that raised up in the centre of the stage, similar to the one used in King Lear. It may have been raised earlier, but I specifically remember it in this scene. [Certainly used during party scene, possibly earlier.] Juliet had been waiting impatiently, and her frustration was very clear. When the nurse did arrive, there was the usual bickering as Juliet pushed to get what she wanted, and the nurse took her time to get what she wanted – in this case, a back rub – before divulging her news. There was a nice bit where Juliet started rubbing one side of her back, and the nurse said, ‘other side’ – it gave us a chuckle. The timing of her abrupt change of subject – “where’s your mother” – was very good. Then we were off to Friar Laurence’s cell for the wedding – a short scene, with nothing to comment on.
Now we come to the point where I found the funny side too much for me. It’s the scene where Mercutio and Benvolio encounter Tybalt, get into a fight, and Romeo, in trying to part them, gets Mercutio killed (hooray!). The stairs were forward again, and the platform was raised. The fight between Mercutio and Tybalt was OK, with Mercutio at first threatening him with the bicycle pump (cue for some more sexual innuendo from the pumping action), and then snatching Tybalt’s sword, after which the whole thing escalated until Tybalt, in the final clinch, used his concealed blade, Wolverine-like, to stab Mercutio in the guts. All fine and good, but I was distracted by the sudden bursts of smoke and fire that belched up every so often from vents in the floor and platform. There had also been flame effects projected onto the screens either side of the gates from the first fight scene onwards – these gave the impression that Verona was already ablaze, similar to the Julius Caesar that I was so very unfond of last year. Now, however, I was struck with the thought that this Verona was actually built on Vesuvius, and the constant mini-eruptions were due to that. I found it hard not to giggle, so I did, silently, but from now on my sense of humour was going full blast, and I saw so much to laugh at that I couldn’t take anything seriously again.
During the fighting, Mercutio handed Tybalt the bicycle pump and took Tybalt’s sword. When Tybalt thumped him in the stomach with the pump, Mercutio bent Tybalt’s sword over to a right angle, and then used it to play cricket. Mercutio’s final speech was delivered in as perky as fashion as I can remember from a dying man, while Romeo tried to strangle Tybalt at first, then turned his own blade on him. Benvolio’s clownish nature made his recounting of the fight seem feeble and petty, and so the prince’s concern, and the threat to the families, was again undercut.
The scene between Juliet and the nurse where Juliet discovered what has happened to Tybalt and Romeo, was excellent, with Mariah Gale’s reactions just perfect, and the nurse suitably deadened by the loss. This scene was intercut with the next, where Romeo and the Friar argued over whether banishment was good news or bad. The plus point here was that it got things over quicker, and the nurse could leave from one scene, then reappear quite quickly in the next, linking them together effectively. The down side was that each scene had to have long pauses in it to allow the other scene to continue. As Steve said, if they hadn’t mucked around so much with the rest of the play, this intercutting might have been effective, but as it was, it came across as simply part of the muddle. I quite liked it, but I take his point. I did notice yet again how Juliet talked herself out of despair, but Romeo needed the Friar’s help to stop him killing himself.
Now by this time, I was looking at my watch quite regularly, as I wanted a break, and time was passing, but we still had a little bit to go. Capulet talking with Paris got the expected laugh when he decided Wednesday is too soon, so the wedding will have to be on…..Thursday. Then we saw Romeo climb the balcony to meet his new wife; they kissed and started stripping each other off. The music swelled, the lights went out and it’s the interval. Fairly innocuous, you might think. Well it would have been, but for the high camp use of rays of gold streaming out from the upper level like a sunburst. Totally over the top, and hugely funny. I do hope that was the intention, but I suspect it wasn’t.
We were now two-thirds of the way through, so at least the final part would be quick. After comparing notes, and finding we were of one mind about the production so far, we braced ourselves for the final stint, and although there was much to laugh at, it was also this part that decided me (and Steve) on the three star rating. It was dire. From the still camp sunburst of the opening scene, where Juliet was reluctant to say goodbye, to the final body count at the cemetery, this performance mostly didn’t get past the comic atmosphere it had set up, and when it did, it was just plain boring.
The scene where Lady Capulet breaks the news to Juliet of her arranged marriage was done over breakfast (on the platform). Juliet’s sudden strength of character was fine, as were the rest of the family’s reactions, though I noticed Capulet had a tendency to crush fruit at every opportunity – he’d done it earlier before giving Peter the list of guests. Juliet’s decision to deceive the nurse was swift and unheralded, but fine, and for some strange reason, when the servants were clearing the stools, they held them in a line diagonally from the corner of the platform, so that Juliet could stride along them as she left the stage, with the servants whisking them off immediately afterwards – why?
The scene between Paris, the friar and Juliet was well done, though with her hoodie, the knife she draws on the friar and her agitated manner, she looks like she’s mugging him to get his spiritual counsel, something else that made me chuckle internally. The scene on Juliet’s return to her father and mother was equally OK. I was starting to lose the will to listen by this time, though. Also, I couldn’t stop smiling, and that’s not really the attitude that goes with this play, certainly not at this stage. Juliet’s final thoughts before drinking the potion were OK, and Tybalt’s ghost appeared just before she downed it, carrying a cloth folded across his arms. He placed it at the head of the platform/bed and left. Once Juliet had drunk the potion, she lay down, and started writhing about in some pain – why? It’s a sleeping draught, for heaven’s sake. The other characters whirled about, saying lines which presumably come from the play, until eventually, with Juliet almost in her death-like state, the nurse came in to wake her.
I’ve already commented on the reactions to Juliet’s death – at least seeing the funny side helped to pass the time. I was not only glad that Mercutio died this time around, I was now keen to see the lovers get it as well. I was very aware that the friar gives his instructions about Juliet’s ‘body’ so that his plan will work properly – not such a bungler as often appears, this one. Juliet’s body got up and walked off by itself – her father picked up the folded cloth to represent carrying her away, which worked quite well. No chance the musicians would get a look in, though.
Then it was Romeo in Mantua. Balthasar arrived, and for no reason I could see, sang part of his message to Romeo, attempting a falsetto delivery which didn’t quite come off tonight. This scene was staged with Balthasar on the upper level, and Romeo on the lower, facing forward. Not my favourite way of doing it, and the singing didn’t help either. The apothecary wasn’t as poor as some – dressed in modern clothes, he can apparently afford an iPod, so he must be doing something right.
The bad news came to Friar Laurence and he headed off to the vault, which was formed with the stairs forward and the platform raised. Juliet was carried in by several men and placed on the platform, still in her Elizabethan-style wedding dress. Paris came and went, Romeo kissed Juliet before he took the poison, and one nice touch here was that after the kiss he turned his back on her, and so missed her first stirrings from her sleep; one of those ‘if only’ moments. Pity I just didn’t care by then. He put the poison in a bottle of water and drank it off, crushing the bottle as he did so, which meant there was a plastic bottle knocking around for the remainder of the play, not that’s there’s long to go, thank goodness.
When Juliet woke up and discovered her husband dead beside her, she let out some weird and wonderful cries which made me think, it’s too late to fake an orgasm now, dear. The stabbing was OK, but again her screams were funny rather than moving. I’ve described the final stages already, and both Steve and I noticed there were major cuts in this section, including the bit about Lady Montague being dead. Just as well, as she was standing there large as life, a most unusual occurrence. Balthasar again attempted a song sometime during the final bit, but again the falsetto was too much and he finished it at regular pitch. We still have no idea why he was doing this. With no sign of a monument to the lovers, the final nail was put in the coffin of this play, as the star-crossed nature of the lovers became completely irrelevant. Minor players in a soap opera world. If ever a production could have presented the Nicholas Nickleby version of the Romeo and Juliet ending, this was it – that thought kept me giggling through much of the final part, and to be honest, using that ending would have improved my enjoyment enormously.
There were enough signs here of some good ideas and good performances, but a lot of work needs to be done to strip out the non-essentials and change the whole nature of the production. There were even some hip-hop/rapping references by Romeo and Juliet that felt really out of place. Unfortunately, a lot of folk at tonight’s performance loved it, so there won’t be much pressure for change for a while, even though a few folk left at the interval. We’re both intending to use our next appointments with this production to simply see how it develops, although the understudy run tomorrow obviously won’t have much time. Hopefully the understudies won’t be so extreme either. Wait and see.
© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me