Romeo and Juliet – March 2011

5/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Rupert Goold

Venue: RST

Date: Wednesday 23rd March 2011

This was a significant improvement on the performance we saw last year. Still deeply flawed, this production has become more balanced, partly by toning down the worst excesses of the early days, but also, sadly, by ‘clowning up’ the main parts to make them fit better with the comedy style. Well, it’s a choice, I suppose.

Firstly, the bits that have gone, or were reduced in some way. The flashes of fire almost completely disappeared, and the video projections were very muted, so we were clearly in Verona this time. Some steam still rose occasionally from the vents, but that was minimal too, and much more effective as a result. The opening fight seemed quicker this time, and Steve reckoned there were fewer knives discarded by Capulet – I wasn’t so sure – although the attempted burning of Benvolio was still included. This time, though, I found it very contrived, as our position round the side meant I could clearly see the people waiting in the wings to bring on the post and rag, etc.

For the party scene, the music was much quieter, and we could actually hear the dialogue between Capulet and Tybalt – hooray! It was well delivered too. After the party, when Mercutio and Benvolio are looking for Romeo, Mercutio’s obscene mime was definitely shorter, even though it was still getting laughs, mainly from the younger members of the audience; I wondered if Jonjo O’Neill was getting a bit bored with it.

The lines about Romeo and rosemary both beginning with an ‘R’ were gone, and I wondered if in fact the time we heard them before was a mistake. Perhaps the lines had been cut, but were accidentally said by whoever, because the conversation ended abruptly without making sense. I was conscious that it must be very hard for actors to constantly chop and change their lines each night, and mistakes are bound to happen from time to time. The winding up of Tybalt had been cut a bit as well, and the fight itself seemed more serious. The golden display which bookends the interval was less over-the-top, and the final scene was almost completely reworked (see below).

Bits that were still much the same included Juliet’s twirly toy, the use of the stools as stepping stones when she heads off to Friar Laurence’s cell, her painful spasms after taking the Friar’s potion, the use of a singing telegram to bring Romeo the news of Juliet’s death, and Lady Capulet running a couple of times around Juliet’s death bed, although this action was presented more clearly as being linked to her call for help, so it seemed more natural this time.

Fresh disasters included a Benvolio who appeared to be auditioning for the role of Igor in a remake of Young Frankenstein – his gurning and manic prowling were completely inappropriate. Romeo also took to making strange prancing movements during the balcony scene, which upped the humour quotient a bit, but lowered the believability of the lovers. In fact, I didn’t buy these two as lovers at all this time round, snogging notwithstanding, mainly because Juliet saw Romeo a few times during the dance and ignored him, then suddenly she’s desperate to kiss him just because he grabbed her by the hand? I don’t think so.

I also had a fit of the (silent-ish) giggles early on. We’d had a talk from Dr Penelope Freedman this afternoon in which she’d commented on the variety of accents, so I was more attuned to them tonight. When Del Boy Montague opened his mouth, I had this vision of some barrow boy who’d built up his retail empire from nothing, was given a title, married a bit of posh, and was now one of Verona’s gentry. At least it kept me amused.

Last time, Steve had noticed Tybalt and Lady Capulet having a kiss during the party scene. This time, they were really going at it, apparently (he didn’t give me a nudge so I could check it out for myself – I was watching the rest of the action). This certainly explained Lady Capulet’s grief at Tybalt’s death, and her intense desire for revenge, but as it’s not textually based, and adds nothing to the main story, I couldn’t see the point of it, although it was well enough acted. I suppose it did underline the fact that arranged marriages aren’t necessarily happy ones -do we need a reminder? – and for a few moments I also toyed with the idea that perhaps Juliet was Tybalt’s child instead of Capulet’s, but that seemed unlikely.

Another thing that didn’t work for me was the attempt to blend so many styles, specifically the reality-based modern dress parts and the Elizabethan costume stylised, bordering on surreal, bits. For example, Juliet’s toy-twirling while her mother’s talking to her about marriage is very in-your-face reality, but her mother has asked the nurse to leave to have some privacy with her daughter, yet she has three or four women dressing her at that point. OK, she recalls the nurse, but the discrepancy jarred a bit, though not as much as the fact that Lady Capulet appears to be getting herself done up as an extra from Gormenghast.

The variety of approaches with Juliet’s performance also troubled me a lot. Portraying her as a little girl one minute, then a randy teenager the next, then a sensible young woman who understands a great deal about life….. I know girls and boys of that age can fluctuate between child and adult as they mature, but this was too much to be believable. It didn’t feel like considered character development so much as a pick’n’mix of performances to suit the needs of the moment. However, Mariah Gale delivered the dialogue better than most, which got me through most of her scenes. Only the pre-potion scene jarred, as she recounted the terrible things that might happen as if she were a child happily going over all the really cool gruesome bits of a frog dissection, rather than a young woman who’s facing some potential horrors, and screwing her courage “to the sticking point”.

So what did work better this time around? Well, Capulet in particular was played much more seriously, and the scene where Juliet refuses to marry Paris was considerably more powerful as a result. I could feel Capulet’s anger, and the threat to Juliet was very real. While the balcony scene suffered from Romeo’s extra clowning, the overlaid scenes between Juliet and the nurse, and Romeo and the Friar, worked very well this time. I was actually starting to get emotionally involved, though of course it was a bit late by this time. I particularly liked the way Romeo stood up for himself and pointed out to the Friar that he couldn’t know how Romeo felt because he wasn’t in Romeo’s situation, and since the Friar was presumably celibate (not guaranteed, I know), it’s a reasonable argument, even if Romeo was making it in the heat of passion.

When the family discover Juliet dead, as they think, I was aware of how much suffering they’re going through, and it crossed my mind that the Friar was doing more harm than good in more ways than one. I also felt that the reason for Friar John  being delayed actually seemed quite plausible this time, given that plague of various sorts did the rounds from time to time all over Europe and beyond.

But I think the greatest improvement was in the ending. As we watched the beginning of the play, with ‘Romeo’ appearing to run into the church/cathedral as if escaping something, and the hint of a siren in the background(?), I felt as if he was coming straight from the tomb scene, a modern person caught in some time-warp loop and doomed to repeat the same tragic story over and over again. However, the revised final scene added a new dimension to that. Instead of the mix of costumes as before, the live characters, Friar Laurence excepted, are all in modern dress, and after Friar Laurence’s explanation of the situation, and a few of the Duke’s lines, the actor who played Balthazar enters, in similar clothes to ‘Romeo’ at the start, wearing headphones, and hearing the audio guide in the Italian accent reciting the closing lines. Spooky. A much shorter ending, removing even more than the previous cuts, but tying it all up much better, and lifting the production considerably further out of the mire. Steve also felt it suggested that the underlying problems of the story are with us still in the present, and are not just historical. He could see the original ‘Romeo’ as a contemporary person who was actually banished, and this was him escaping to the quiet of a church, then getting caught up in a historical version of the same love tragedy, but with the final scene reverting to the present day, hence the modern dress for the other characters. Interesting idea

So not such a bad experience as before, and although it was too patchy for me to enthuse about it, we both enjoyed ourselves much more than we anticipated. It’s also a good reminder of how much a production can change over time, and particularly with Rupert Goold, who to his credit is willing not only to take risks with his productions, but to change and refine them when needed.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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