Romeo And Juliet – February 2012


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Robert Icke

Company: Headlong

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Friday 24th February 2012

This was superb, one of the best productions of R&J I’ve seen. And as it’s still early in the tour, there’s the chance it will get even better.

From early on, I realised this was going to be a very different version of the play than I was used to, so I had to set aside all previous knowledge and just flow with the action on stage. And there was plenty of fast-paced action in this production, which made it easy both to follow the story and to forget what was ‘supposed’ to come next. To start with, the set was bare apart from a large white frame high up towards the back of the stage. Once the lights came up a bit I could see that this surrounded a platform, which I thought would be the balcony later on. Steps led up to this platform on either side, and there was a wide doorway underneath the platform with meshed areas either side. The floor was simple wooden boards, and the bed was slid on through the doorway as needed. This allowed for fast-paced changes of scene, and as they often ran two scenes at the same time, we got through a much edited version of the play in two and three-quarter hours. Nothing was skimped, however, although I did feel the ending was a little brief for the emotional rollercoaster ride to fully sink in. Even so, it was an amazing journey, and one I hope to repeat (if we can fit it in).

No prologue, just a droning sound before the start – I was very relieved when it stopped (reminded me of Therese Raquin at the National) – and then the lights came on very brightly and the time was projected onto the screen in front of the platform: Sunday, just before 5 a.m., and we saw the seconds count through. Two characters came on from the wings and crossed to the right of the stage; one of them was lighting a cigarette. Two other characters crossed the opposite way and left the stage, with the two groups barely acknowledging each other. Then we had the first of the rewind/repeat sections. The actors all moved back into their start positions, pretty much, the time went back to the start point, and the action began again. This time, the lighter wouldn’t work and when he tried to light his cigarette, the chap hurt his thumb which he then sucked. He’d already made a noise from the pain, and that caused the other two blokes to look round. When one of them saw the lighter chap suck his thumb, he asked the question, “Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?”, a reasonable request in the circumstances. Thumb-sucker was very conciliatory during this bit, but his companion was well up for it, and then Benvolio and Tybalt joined in – well, it’s not going to end happily, is it? Tybalt spat on his chips and offered one to Benvolio, who ate it, just to avoid a nasty scene. Then the bed came on in the middle, with Capulet and Lady Capulet on board. Capulet received a phone call, clearly to tell him of the fight, and he leapt out of bed a little too briskly for a man of his advanced years, calling for his sword. Mrs Capulet also got up – we may have got her line about “a crutch” – and then the prince was making a chunk of his speech condemning the violence, standing on the platform at a podium bristling with microphones.

At this point, the order of events was very different from the text, and the cross-cutting of scenes is a little tricky to recall; I’ll do my best to get it down. I think the next bit was a short chunk of the scene where Capulet invites Paris to his feast and gives Peter some letters to deliver. The time was being shown on the screen again, and after making a brief invitation to Paris, Capulet called for a servant. Peter and the nurse both came on stage and Capulet handed the letters to the nurse, or she took them, I’m not sure exactly how it went. They left the stage, and then we had the second rewind/repeat section; this time the letters went to Peter, with a puzzled look from the nurse (presumably she knows that Peter can’t read) and the action continued.

I wasn’t sure at first about these rewind sections, but I kept an open mind and now I can see that they bring out the chance nature of the tragedy. If the lighter had worked, if the nurse had taken the letters, if, if, if. The first rewind may not have made a huge difference, admittedly, but it did show us the level of hostility between the two camps and how some little perceived slight can set them off, which is a very important aspect of the play to establish early on.

I think the next bit was Romeo either coming on stage and lying on the bed or the bed coming back on with him on it, having been taken off sometime before. He may have lain there through the letter bit, but he was certainly there while his father talked about how withdrawn he was, and the picture on the stage was a clear demonstration of Montague’s words. Benvolio also reported the events of the fight up on the platform, as if he’d followed on from the prince’s speech. Whatever the order of events, Romeo got up just before Benvolio arrived and they went straight into discussing Romeo’s sadness. I had a few brief seconds of fame again tonight, as I was the unlucky comparison with Rosaline.

Peter came on next and told us of his plight. He did ask someone in the audience for help reading the letters, through mime, but no luck. Romeo offered to help, and looked through each envelope, telling Peter the names, while he tried to remember them by counting on his fingers. When Romeo got to the one for Rosaline, he reacted strongly, letting Benvolio know who his love was. As Peter left to make the deliveries, Benvolio snuck the Rosaline invite out of his back pocket and waved it under Romeo’s nose as they finished the scene.

Juliet was next on the bed; she was listening to her iPod, wearing large headphones. We could hear the music blaring out, and it was no wonder she didn’t hear the nurse call at first. When she realised her mother was coming to see her, she stopped the music and took the headphones off, and from Lady Capulet’s behaviour, it was clear that mother and daughter hadn’t spent a lot of time together over the years. The nurse was in the room at first, folding some laundry, but Lady Capulet sent her out. Then she sat on the bed to talk to Juliet, but the distance between them was too much for her and she didn’t know how to start, at least that’s how I saw the situation. I felt she called the nurse back in to help her find some way to broach the subject of marriage, and despite the nurse’s ramblings, she did at least bring up that very subject.

It was very noticeable how different Juliet was with the nurse compared to her mother. Her mother was distant and uncomfortable with her; the nurse was very relaxed and cuddlesome with Juliet, and the funny story, apart from being very well told, had Juliet joining in for her bit – this was clearly a well-worn tale which Juliet liked to hear. The nurse used a West Indian accent when quoting her husband’s words, which gave it a more authentic feel. During the final repetition, Juliet saw from her mother’s expression that they’d overdone it, and her request to the nurse to “stint” was a wise choice. What Juliet wasn’t keen to hear was talk of marriage, and although she said the right things to her mother, it was clear to us that she didn’t fancy becoming anyone’s wife just yet. Peter broke up the scene by telling them they were all wanted for the feast – the screen was showing Sunday at 7 p.m. or thereabouts (they actually used 24 hour notation).

Before this point, we had the rest of the scene where Capulet talked with Paris, but I’m not sure where exactly that was inserted. I do remember that when Lady Capulet was telling Juliet what a fine catch Paris was, the man himself walked through the back of the stage, coming on from the right and exiting by the centre doorway. His torso certainly looked splendid from where I was sitting, and if that was the only consideration I would have advised Juliet to snap him up immediately.

The torch/Queen Mab scene was played using actual torches – electric ones – and Benvolio and Romeo lit Mercutio’s face while he went through the details of Queen Mab’s attributes. I was aware during the party scene that Mercutio had actually been on the invitation list, and in this scene he had his visor up, while Benvolio and Romeo had theirs down. There was loud music playing in the background for most of this scene, although they did start off with some funky (and funny) dancing on the stage. The servants were running around with trays and wearing white DJs, and we also saw Lady Capulet and Tybalt up on the platform having a snog, so the relationship there was clear cut. Capulet’s cousin was brought on in a wheelchair, and although he was willing to get up, Capulet insisted that he sit. I noticed during their reminiscences that they talked of Lucentio’s marriage – as we’ve just seen Taming recently I wondered if that was an in-joke by Shakespeare, referring to his earlier play? And then we heard Petruchio mentioned later on..…the plot thickens.

After Tybalt had finished smooching with Lady Capulet, they both came downstairs, and Tybalt was very unhappy at Romeo’s presence. Capulet was firm with him, and even snippy by the end, but I didn’t see any awareness of Tybalt’s extra-curricular activities with his wife. Instead he seemed to want everyone to get on for the sake of having a good time, and his comment about Romeo’s good reputation suggested that he was less focused on revenge than is sometimes the case with this play. Capulet can often seem more concerned that nothing untoward is done in his house to spoil the fun, but later…… This was more a total ban on hurting someone who hasn’t done him any harm and who is generally reputed to be a decent young man, Montague or no.

Romeo’s chance encounter with Juliet didn’t happen at first. He was sitting on the front left corner of the stage, swigging from a bottle, while in the centre of the stage Capulet called for his daughter to be brought out and presented to Paris, who was done up in African tribal gear. Juliet was very reluctant, but Paris ignored this and embraced her. They then left the stage, and the rewind button went into action again. This time, one of the servants – Peter? – brought on a tray and crashed into Paris, spilling the contents, don’t know what they were. As they scattered, and Peter and the nurse picked some up, Juliet skipped out of the way towards the front of the stage and looking across it saw Romeo standing there, looking back at her; he’d been alerted by the noise of the spillage. Their eyes met, it was love at first sight, you know the deal. Their sonnet was spoken later at the front of the stage, and I reckoned they were both feeling their way through this first encounter. Their youth and inexperience came across clearly.

The party finished with Capulet very drunk and wanting everyone else to stay. I think someone whispered in his ear to point out that it was after two (the clock was showing us the time as well) and he looked at his watch before saying “Is it e’en so?” and saying goodnight to everyone. When Juliet asked the nurse to name the people as they were leaving, the latter pretended not to know who Romeo was at first, but when Juliet told her to run after him, she relented and told her – obviously too tired to walk far, never mind run.

The next scene was mainly Mercutio and Benvolio in front of the Capulet garden wall. Romeo leapt off the stage to begin with, which represented his escape into the garden, and the other two were left, much the worse for drink, sprawled on the stage and singing songs very loudly, as drunks tend to do at 3 a.m. when other people are trying to sleep. There were plenty of bawdy gestures as Mercutio attempted to conjure Romeo’s presence, but nothing too over the top (makes a pleasant change) and they soon left to go to bed. Romeo came back down the aisle he’d hidden on, and I got another surprise; the balcony scene wasn’t played out using the platform! The bed came back on with Juliet on it, and they played the scene that way. The stage isn’t very high in the Yvonne Arnaud, so Romeo could get onto it very easily, and this helped to move the scene along quickly. Juliet was lying on her front on the bed with her head on her hands, as remarked on by Romeo, and there was a lovely sensitivity to her performance. Romeo was still a bit gangly and uncoordinated which fitted his age, as they were playing them both very young this time.

The next scene had Friar Laurence giving a lecture on the medicinal properties of plants with the aid of slides which were projected onto the big screen. The friar snapped his fingers to have them changed, which mostly worked fine, but I think he had a bit of trouble with one of them (intentional, for laughs). He was carrying a folder with his notes, and his attitude of a teacher addressing a class was a nice bit of fun. They even rang a bell towards the end of his speech – fortunately no one left the classroom. He also held up a small phial of liquid when he mentioned “for this, being smelt..” – pay attention, cause it’s going to come back in later. When Romeo told the friar his news, he dropped his notes in surprise – got a good laugh – and he gave Romeo a strong telling off for his behaviour. I noticed that Romeo, like Juliet, joined in for some of the friar’s familiar lines, possibly “Riddling confession finds but riddling shrift”?

Now for the hangover scene. In similar vein to the famous RSC production many years ago which had the Ferrari on stage, there was a gelato seller with his trolley and a couple of chairs for Mercutio and Benvolio to rest on. I noticed that Mercutio wore blue suede shoes, and given the use of music in this production (I haven’t gone into detail yet) I half expected some Elvis before the night was out. But they didn’t make anything of it that I saw, so perhaps it was just a fashion statement this time. Romeo was livelier when he met them this time, and when the nurse turned up with Peter, she had clearly spent a good part of the morning taking advantage of the Verona sales – Peter was laden with carrier bags. Mercutio’s line about “a sail” became “a sale”, with the word written large across most of the bags.

This was the next rewind section. When the nurse and Romeo moved aside to converse, Peter turned his back, I think to light a fag, and Mercutio snuck over and rummaged in the bags, throwing the contents all over the place and brandishing a bra. This broke the conference up, and the nurse left without making the necessary arrangements with Romeo. So the action rewound, and this time although Mercutio threw some of the clothes about the place, he and Benvolio were chased off and the nurse was able to complete her business with Romeo. She took his offered money after an initial show of reluctance, and when she began with “Lord, Lord, when ‘twas a little prating thing” I thought we were going to get the whole weaning story again, but mercifully not.

Juliet came back on with the bed, and her impatience was absolutely typical of a teenager. The nurse did look tired when she turned up, but given the number of bags she’d accumulated, we could see why. The two of them sat on the end of the bed and had their little conversation. Juliet hit the nurse with a pillow at one point, which led to the comment about having an aching head, and she made Juliet rub her back (other side) before finally giving her the news she wanted. She also gave her a lovely cream or pale yellow dress with a veil to wear to her wedding, so she’d done more than shop for herself all morning.

The scene at Friar Laurence’s cell was brief, and I don’t remember if we got any of the lines at all. If we did, it was just the opening bit. The friar and Romeo stood on the platform and Juliet joined them there in her wedding dress before heading off for the marriage ceremony. This was a general point about this production; they preferred to show rather than tell, so a good deal of the dialogue was cut in favour of showing us the essential action, and on the whole I found it worked very well for me.

Back in the streets, and at the gelato stand Mercutio and Benvolio were still lounging around. Tybalt arrived with a couple of his men, and despite Mercutio’s aggression, Romeo spoke very amiably with him and Tybalt actually did look satisfied as he put away his knife and turned to go. Of course Mercutio couldn’t leave it at that, and squirted some raspberry sauce from the gelato stand on Tybalt’s head. He may also have added some sprinkles. While the others held him back, Romeo being right in front of him, Tybalt was able to stab Mercutio under Romeo’s arm before running off.

The usual lines from Mercutio about his wound were played very differently tonight. At first he fell down and seemed to be hurt, but then he got up and it was clear he had been joking with them. My mind was reeling a bit as I tried to figure out where we were going – was this going to be a rewind moment? Were they going to play it without Mercutio being killed? And then, amidst the joking, Mercutio took off his shirt and we could see the red stain under it, on his vest. Benvolio and Romeo saw it as well, of course, and their looks alerted Mercutio to his fate. This was an incredibly moving moment. We’d been shaken out of our complacency, and lulled into a humorous mood by Mercutio’s clowning, and now the fact of his death hit us like a bullet; I’m tearing up with the memory as I write – a superb bit of staging. Mercutio had a few final lines before Benvolio helped him off stage, and then Romeo was left alone to seek revenge on Tybalt. He had a knife which had been dropped during the earlier brawl, and used it on Tybalt who came back, unarmed. His body fell in the front left corner of the stage, and Romeo half knelt, half lay on it through the next section.

At this point the bed came on again with Juliet, and she launched into “Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds”. I found this incredibly emotional; with Tybalt’s body reminding us of Romeo’s impending banishment, her joyful anticipation of her wedding night was beautifully juxtaposed with the evidence of the violent social order which has doomed that very relationship from the start, and it emphasised the love/hate dichotomy of the play, which this production brought out to the full.

For the next part there were three scenes intercut, if memory serves. The prince announced Romeo’s banishment from the platform, Juliet on her bed received the bad news from the nurse, while Romeo was also on stage with the friar, seeking his help. They whirled around one another, with the two older characters trying to soothe the younger ones, until both Juliet and Romeo were standing side by side on the bed and the nurse and the friar were walking round it. It worked very well, and although we missed out on the nurse’s visit to the friar, the through story was very clear. The first half ended with Romeo and Juliet kissing, embracing, and starting to throw their clothes off as the bed was drawn back and the lights went out.

The second half began with the short scene between Capulet, Lady Capulet and Paris. The bed had already been brought on below, and stayed in darkness while these characters were on the platform above. Again, they used the rewind feature with this scene; after Capulet had explained the situation, Paris took the huff, went behind the doorway to pick up his bag and left, after Lady Capulet’s two lines and a look from him that made her move out of the way. He didn’t come across as a nice man, this Paris, rather domineering and unpleasant. Then they redid the scene, with Capulet deciding at the last minute to make Juliet’s choice for her, much too late as it happened. With the time being shown so clearly throughout this production, the humour of Capulet’s change of day from Wednesday (too soon) to Thursday (just right) was emphasised, and we laughed. Lady Capulet looked unhappy about the match, and from Capulet’s behaviour later we got a good idea why. But now the action shifted to the bed below, with Romeo and Juliet waking up and discussing the time. They were decent when they got out of bed, thank goodness – nudity may be realistic, but it can distract from the main point of the scene – and Romeo left up the aisle as he had before.

Juliet was a changed girl when she stood up to her mother this time. She’d been very cooperative earlier when her mother paid her an unaccustomed visit to tell her about Paris, but now she threw quite a strop over the suggestion of marriage. But first they discussed Tybalt, and I got the impression that her mother wanted her to stop grieving because it was hard for her too, and either Juliet’s obvious suffering made her restraint harder to maintain or if she could suck it up, so could Juliet – not sure which it was. They did seem to be closer for a while at this point, although it’s only because Juliet was choosing her words carefully and therefore appeared to be in sympathy with her mother. Anyway, once the marriage deal was mentioned, the claws were out, and it’s up to Capulet to sort out the mess.

This portrayal, by Keith Bartlett, was marvellous. He managed to show us a man whose anger and need to control made him a monster, while still being a recognisable human being. Of course, it was the reactions of the nurse and Lady Capulet, along with Juliet, which really gave us the sense of this man’s effect on his family; they were terrified to step out of line, and kept glancing at him in that submissive way that told us how bad things were. Capulet spoke his lines slowly and clearly, with pauses between each few words, as if he was being ever so reasonable when all around him were acting like lunatics; the anger came across more strongly because of it.

At the friar’s cell, Paris was oozing confidence, and perhaps showed a little impatience with the friar when he questioned the speed of the marriage? When Juliet turned up, we could see that Paris was in the same mould as her father; he regarded her as a possession, and she would have been as miserable as her mother if she’d married him. The friar gave Juliet the same phial he had shown us earlier during his lecture, and with the clock showing a time around 7p.m. on Tuesday, Juliet returned to her father to apologise for her behaviour.

The pace really speeded up after this, with her father deciding to have the wedding a day earlier and Juliet taking her poison after her mother and the nurse left her alone. There was a tender moment when her mother came in to see if she could help with the preparations; she touched Juliet’s face so gently, and was clearly feeling more sympathy for her daughter than ever before. She was sad to be sent away this time.

Once Juliet drank off the phial, she sat back down on the bed, upright against the back with her eyes open, and then the weird effects started. They used projected video to show the preparations going on, but with the voices slowed down and accompanied by jerky images, as if Juliet were on some strange drug trip, which in a sense she was. These images covered the whole back of the stage, and then the nurse was sent in to wake Juliet. Her image loomed large on the screen, and we heard her lines as if they were far away. After the discovery of Juliet’s ‘death’, there were only a few lines of dialogue in the background, and then the bed was moved back (not even a sniff of the musicians) so that Romeo could appear in Mantua. Benvolio brought him the bad news, and then Romeo quickly bought the poison from the apothecary. This man was remarkably well dressed; he wore a smart grey suit and stood at the front of the stage on the left while Romeo stood on the right, and they made the gestures of passing the money and poison to each other without actually doing it. As Romeo was about to leave, he came face to face with Mercutio, as it seemed, but he turned out to be Friar John, the messenger who failed; these scenes were overlapped. Friar Laurence was suitably angry for once about the letter not being delivered, which brought out the importance of Romeo being informed of the situation.

The final scenes were kept very simple. No Paris arriving at the monument with flowers, no hidden servants, no friar arriving late, nothing but the bed with Juliet lying on it, crosswise this time. Romeo spoke several lines over Juliet’s body before drinking his poison, and as he cradled her, she started to move her arm. As he lay back, she was brought round to mirror his position, and so she woke up with Romeo dead beside her. His knife was lying on the bed, and she used that to stab herself, falling back so they lay dead together. After this, we went straight to the prince’s admonishment – “Where be these enemies” – followed by Capulet and Montague almost vying to honour the other’s offspring, then hugging. The prince’s final lines brought the performance to a conclusion, a more abrupt end than I was expecting, I must admit, but still it was a tremendous experience and one of the best versions of the play I’ve seen.

The performances were all excellent. I’ve already mentioned Keith Bartlett who played Capulet. He was crystal clear all the way through and was willing to show us the unpleasant side of this male-dominated society. He also got quite a few laughs with the funny stuff. Caroline Faber was superb as Lady Capulet. It’s such an underwritten part, yet she brought out so much of that character’s suffering through her expressions and her hesitations that I was much more aware of her story tonight. Her arranged marriage was unhappy so she took comfort from another relationship, and I think her inability to do anything to change her circumstances spoke volumes about the nature of that society.

Simon Coates was excellent as the friar with his authoritative manner, and Stephen Fewell was good as Montague and the apothecary. I didn’t realise who he was during the first scene; assuming they weren’t just giving him another part, it was Montague himself who asked about the thumb biting. I wasn’t sure about the lack of colour coding for this production; on the one hand it can make it more confusing knowing who’s who, but on the other it emphasises that these people aren’t actually different from each other, and only the long-standing feud separates them. Once I got to know the characters it wasn’t a problem, and given that they were using modern dress it would probably have been harder to colour coordinate, so on the whole I’m fine with this choice.

Daniel Boyd as Romeo was a bit gawky all the way through, which did fit with his youth but wasn’t the most effective style for delivering the lines. He did well enough though, and I appreciated the youthful aspects of the performance; it felt very fresh. Catrin Stewart was a very good Juliet, demure to begin with but toughening up later on in response to the changes in her world. Her delivery of the lines was very good, and her journey very clear. It’s always a difficult choice to make with these parts, whether to go for experience or youth, and this time it worked well. Some aspects weren’t brought out so much, but the sense of these two young people being destroyed by a combination of chance and the prejudices of their elders was very strong.

The nurse (Brigid Zengeni) was another great performance. In the early scenes she came across as more Juliet’s mother than Lady Capulet, and while the cuts made it harder to see the changes in this relationship, she was still an important presence. Paris (Tunji Lucas) and Tybalt (Okezie Morro) were also good in these small but important parts, and Steve was disappointed not to see Paris being killed in this version. Tom Mothersdale was a more unpleasant Mercutio than most, but gave us the lines pretty well, Danny Kirrane did a fine job as Benvolio, and David Hooke was an entertaining Peter.

The music was interesting. The fateful day of Tybalt and Mercutio’s death, and Romeo and Juliet’s marriage, is a Monday according to the chronology of the play; from the fight scene onwards they played a gentler version of I Don’t Like Mondays (no credits in the program) which fitted very well. There was disco music for the party scene, mostly in the background, and other good choices during the play, though I don’t remember the details now.

There was so much in this production that I’m hoping we can fit it in again so I can catch even more of the detail. My lasting impression is that it was all Mercutio’s fault – if he hadn’t insisted on fighting Tybalt…..

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

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