By William Shakespeare
Directed by Polina Kalinina
Venue: Tobacco Factory
Date: Friday 27th February 2015
For once, I’ll have to take my time describing the set for this production. Unlike their usual bare stage, this version of Will’s play made use of a very unusual piece of stage furniture, and as it went through several changes during the performance, there’s a lot to say about it. While I found its presence a bit of a distraction (because I felt compelled to jot down notes about it instead of focusing on the action) Steve didn’t notice it so much; however neither of us felt that it added much to the production.
Enough with the suspense already – the contraption in question was a roundabout, slightly off-centre but taking up about a third of the acting space. Not a road-type roundabout, in case you’re confused and think this production was based on rival trucking firms. No, this was a children’s playground roundabout, with a wooden floor and three metal rails; the muted red paint was so old it had worn off the metal in places.
Above this roundabout hung a large circular mirror, not as large as the roundabout but still pretty big. The four main pillars in the corners of the stage had been supplemented by four more within the seating area, creating two rows. Each pillar had gold leaf on the upper part, with numerous small light bulbs dangling down in an asymmetric pattern. Beneath the four main pillars I could see a scattering of gold and green tiles amongst the regular red ones, and this combination of gold and green was used throughout the play.
As we sat in our front row seats (to the left of the main entrance) taking in this novel sight, we could hear a rasping sound in the background. I thought it was the sound of a roundabout turning, while Steve was reminded of a roulette wheel spinning and the ball rolling around inside it. Just before the start, the lights dimmed, smoke started pouring out from a couple of places and the rasping noise turned into the sound of a small metal ball falling into a roulette wheel slot – Steve had been right. A young woman came on wearing a short coat and wandered around the playground, then sat on the bars of the roundabout, looking a bit wistful or nostalgic. (We realised soon after the start that the time frame was the 1960s, and the costumes were all period.) At first I thought this might be Juliet herself. She began singing, a strange song with words I couldn’t make out – possibly foreign? She started quietly, others joined in, and as the song grew louder, a helicopter flew overhead. (OK, we heard the sound of a helicopter flying overhead.)
The song finished, and as she sat on one of the railings, swinging her leg, a man carrying a police truncheon joined her and they went into a trimmed version of the opening scene. He kissed her after the reference to “a pretty piece of flesh”, but I’m still not sure which of them he was referring to. Things became a little clearer when the Montagues turned up – two men in the main entrance and at least one other on the far side, although that may have been another Capulet. The thumb-biting incident was intended to be a major provocation, and in no time flat the various participants had dismantled the railings – they came apart in three sections – and were using them in the fight. Benvolio didn’t get very far in his attempt to stop the brawl, especially when Tybalt came along, and the whole room was filled with some of the most energetic (and noisy) fighting I’ve ever seen.
The Duke had to use a loud-hailer to get their attention. Actually, he had to speak several of his lines through it before they stopped fighting and dropped their weapons to listen to him. He put away the loud-hailer and stepped onto the now flat roundabout to lecture them on their bad behaviour, then stalked off to give Capulet a private ear-bashing. Benvolio gave his version of events to Montague, followed by their conversation about Romeo, during which Benvolio replaced some of the railings. I wasn’t taking this dialogue in properly, and I was very worried that this production might not be my cup of tea. But then Romeo turned up, and things improved enormously.
Played by Paapa Essiedu, this Romeo was just on the cusp of adulthood. He was broody at first, but then started some banter with Benvolio about being in love, and there was even some laughter at this. Romeo did a few robotic movements when claiming that he “was otherwhere”, which amused a lot of us, and they took advantage of the audience’s proximity to single out a couple of ladies for the comparison section. This was all very playful, and with Peter’s involvement cut, Benvolio simply brought up the party without any previous reference to it.
Paris arrived at the Capulet’s – space, shall I call it? – holding a bunch of flowers. It was clear by this time that most of the actors were relatively young; only the Duke and Montague were anywhere near getting their bus passes. Capulet himself looked in his mid to late thirties, while his wife was definitely much younger, and could easily have been the age suggested by her “reckoning” – twenty-seven or twenty-eight. The nurse was of a similar age, and although I found this a bit disconcerting at first, we agreed later that this was more realistic given the text. It also gave Steve an interesting idea, but I’ll leave that for later.
Paris was clearly keen to get the match arranged, and seemed a pleasant enough young man, although from his clothes he was one of the establishment types rather than a rebel. He finally gave the flowers to Lady Capulet; they were red roses, from what I could see. Left alone on the stage, Lady Capulet called for the nurse several times, and when she finally turned up we all had a laugh. She was in a flimsy nightie and negligee, she wore fluffy mules and her hair was done up in curlers and swathed in a chiffon scarf. As per the text, she kept interrupting Lady Capulet when she tried to speak to Juliet, which was mildly funny but not convincing; I didn’t get a sense of her character at all until later. Juliet was slightly embarrassed by the nurse’s story – good job there were no pictures on Facebook – and finally persuaded the nurse to shut up. I wasn’t aware of any great closeness between the two of them, while Lady Capulet might almost have been an older sister to Juliet. A distant older sister, mind you. Juliet was quite straightforward in her responses to her mother, showing no great desire to marry but no rebelliousness either. A female servant came on with some drinks; Lady Capulet was quick to indulge, and before she left she gave the flowers to the nurse.
The stage was invaded immediately after their departure by a group of young men – we got to see Balthasar a lot in this production – who made a lot of noise. Balthasar was carrying a guitar while Benvolio had a bottle of booze. All four had masks which looked a bit like gas masks, though they weren’t all wearing them at the start of the scene. I have a note that Mercutio mimed shooting at the others – don’t remember what that was – but then he took off his shirt and revealed a lot of green paint on his body, including two green handprints on his shoulder blades. There was also a lot of glitter, so presumably this was his way of dressing up for the party.
Romeo was very good during this scene, but when Mercutio went into the Queen Mab speech we felt the energy dropped and the scene became boring. Romeo kissed Mercutio before they left to go to the party, and as the group left they took the remaining pieces of railing from the roundabout. This allowed the stage crew to come on and remove the wooden flooring to reveal a shiny black surface. The crew wore gas masks, and there was loud rock music playing and lots of jerky dancing as the party took over from the set change. Romeo was wearing a white outfit with Elvis fringes on the jackets (and I’d noticed an earlier reference to Elvis – look out for it next time). It took me a while to spot the nurse; with the curlers out of her hair and wearing a slinky black catsuit, she looked very different from the earlier version we’d seen. Juliet was in a plain frock and sitting on Paris’ shoulders; they turned slowly, and after she came down, the cast went into an interwoven dance round the central area.
It was all pretty noisy, but they kept the level down for Capulet telling off Paris, and then Romeo ran round the stage for a bit before ending up on the roundabout with Juliet for the sonnet, and even the music stopped for this bit. The rest of the cast sat down on the edge of the roundabout so we could see the scene clearly, and the sense that these two young people were in the process of becoming adults was very strong. Their delivery of the lines was excellent, and both aspects – the child and the man/woman – were clearly present.
When the party was over, the relationship between Capulet and the nurse became more obvious as they left together with every intention of having some fun. Lady Capulet slapped her husband hard as he went past her – good on you, girl – and we both reckoned that Susan, the nurse’s deceased daughter, might have been this philandering Capulet’s child as well. The nurse had previously told Juliet who Romeo was before leaving her alone on the middle of the roundabout with Romeo trying to get to her but being blocked by the others. He ran off and hid behind the far left pillar, amongst the audience, while Mercutio and his two companions did their usual drunken bout of complaining.
Once they had cleared out of the way, Juliet came on and lay on her back on the roundabout, on the opposite side to Romeo. He came forward and spoke his lines, kneeling at one point but then moving around a fair bit. She rolled over and sat up, getting into suitable poses for Romeo’s comments about her to be valid – hand on cheek etc. She was still sitting when she began to speak, but stood up when Romeo responded. They were only a few paces from each other, yet between them they convinced me that she was up on a balcony out of reach, and he was standing below. Their eager bashfulness was brilliantly done, and made the scene incredibly intimate.
The lights went out at the end of this scene, and when they rose again the Friar was finishing off his yoga on the roundabout – the sun salutation no less. There was also some semi-oriental organ music playing in the background. With his exercises done, the Friar began to explain the medicinal properties of plants. He took a flower out of the basket which he’d left by a pillar and offered it to a lady in the audience to smell. He was in the process of putting his shoes back on when Romeo arrived, all lively and keen to get going with his wedding plans. When the Friar mentioned Rosalind, Romeo was completely bewildered – she was so, like, twenty-four hours ago! – but he was soon back on target with his determination to get the Friar to marry him to Juliet today! There was a pause before “eyes” in “Young men’s love then lies not truly in their hearts but in their eyes” which was funny, and then Romeo grabbed the handle of the basket which the Friar was holding and used that to drag him off stage.
Benvolio and Mercutio came on, well hung over, and while they chatted for a bit, Benvolio replaced one of the railings on the roundabout. Romeo was much livelier when he turned up, and Mercutio clearly enjoyed their verbal sparring. So much so, that it became physical as well; after chasing each other round the roundabout for a bit, they ended up wrestling on it, with Benvolio getting caught in the middle and mock-rogered by Mercutio. This was the point when the nurse arrived with Peter (played by a woman but wearing a man’s suit – what were we meant to make of that?). Mercutio sang a lewd song, accompanying himself on the guitar, while Romeo acted as if he wasn’t with him. The nurse managed to have a few quiet words with Romeo once Mercutio and Benvolio left, and was only too happy to take his message to Juliet before he’d even given it to her. As the nurse left, she deliberately dropped her fan for Peter to pick up – she hadn’t been at all pleased with him/her for not coming to her defence earlier, and his/her cheeky retort to the nurse’s complaint hadn’t helped matters.
Juliet’s impatience was well-observed. She had come on in a shirt dress and carrying a jacket, so all dressed up with nowhere to go. The nurse took off her boots before sitting on the roundabout and complaining about all her aches and pains – more believable in an older woman – but her abrupt change from “and, I warrant, a virtuous” to “where is your mother” was very well done; Juliet’s confusion was completely understandable. When the nurse told her to go to the Friar’s cell to be married, she put her jacket on immediately and then stood waiting on the roundabout, where she was joined by Romeo, now wearing a white T-shirt, jeans and a black jacket. There was enough of a change – perhaps the lighting? – to make this shift of location clear. Romeo and Juliet embraced, then kissed, and then the Friar came on and had to drag them off stage for the wedding ceremony.
Now we were back to the ‘hate’ side of this play. More chat between Mercutio and Benvolio was followed by Tybalt’s arrival in search of Romeo; we’d noticed the earlier information that Tybalt had sent Romeo a challenge. Romeo was in no mood to kill a newly acquired family member, despite Tybalt spitting in his face, but that insult was too much for Mercutio who went for the Capulet. The fight was rough and hard to keep track of from our angle. The roundabout was spinning and knives had been drawn, but in the end Tybalt grabbed a half brick from the side of the stage and hit Mercutio hard over the head with it. Mercutio collapsed onto the roundabout, and Tybalt, as if realising what he’d done and not liking the potential consequences, dropped the brick and ran off.
Mercutio had blood streaming from a cut high up on his temple, and was absolutely convinced he was a goner. Perhaps it’s my familiarity with the play, but I wasn’t so taken with this method of murder; a cut on the head versus a stab in the guts – which would do the job better? Steve found it plausible, though. Anyway, Mercutio cursed a bit as he stumbled round the stage, then collapsed by the right entrance pillar. Benvolio pronounced him dead, and then Tybalt came back for round two. This time Romeo was up for it, and this bout was even more frenetic than the first. It may be because they’re still getting used to the fight choreography, but I found this part a bit corny too. Romeo finally stabbed Tybalt in the chest with what looked like a bit of pipe and ran off, the Duke arrived with the assorted parents who cried and whimpered over the bodies – Tybalt’s was on the roundabout – and the Duke pronounced Romeo’s banishment. The bodies were carried off, and that’s where they took the interval.
As they put back the wooden flooring on the roundabout, filled in the holes where the railings had been and placed a bed with a white painted metal frame on the middle of it, Steve and I discussed the performance so far. He was giving it 7/10, I was less happy at 6/10, but we both agreed there were some interesting things going on. With Lady Capulet being so young and Capulet himself clearly being presented as a womaniser, Steve saw parallels with Henry VIII and Katherine. He also reckoned that instead of Juliet being the late daughter of a second marriage whose elder siblings had died, often the implication when the Capulets are older, she may have been the eldest child of a first marriage with other children dying in infancy or being stillborn – a very different situation. An intriguing interpretation, and one which chimed perfectly with the raw energy and immediacy of this particular production.
The second half began with music, a cheerful ballad of typical 60s style being played on the radio off stage. Then Juliet came on and some heavy rock music drowned out the ballad. She began dancing round her bedroom, collapsing on her bed at the end as the ballad came back through again. Her impatience for it to be night so that she could be with Romeo was fine, and then the nurse came on to report the bad news. Or maybe she just stumbled into Juliet’s room as she walked through the house, numb with grief. This was the best part of her performance for me, and again Juliet’s confusion as to what was going on meshed perfectly with the nurse’s evident grief for the loss of Tybalt. While the nurse was unhappy with Romeo for killing Tybalt, it was Juliet’s unhappiness at Romeo’s banishment which tipped her into sympathy for the girl’s plight and prompted her offer to go and find Romeo.
Once she left, Juliet quit the room as well, the lights flickered and with a quarter turn of the roundabout, Romeo took Juliet’s place on what was now a bed at the Friar’s cell – neat. Now without his jacket – I think he took it off in order to fight Tybalt earlier – we could see the blood on his T-shirt. The nurse arrived and was suitably stroppy with Romeo when he wouldn’t get up, and the Friar’s plan was explained very clearly. Romeo gave him a big hug before he left.
I think there was another pop tune before the next scene, which was back in Juliet’s bedroom. She was standing there when Romeo entered on the opposite side of the roundabout, and as they gazed into each other’s eyes across the bed, she took her top off followed by Romeo removing his T-shirt, still covered in blood. They removed their jeans and knelt on the bed together, getting very intimate but with nothing serious happening, and then they cuddled together on the bed as the lights went down low on that area. Meanwhile on the far side of the roundabout Capulet and his wife were saying goodnight to Paris, who had clearly hoped to see Juliet despite the events of the day – has the man no sensitivity? Capulet made his rash promise that Juliet would accept Paris as her husband, and told his wife to visit Juliet before she went to bed.
The Capulets must have an enormous mansion, because it was quite some time before Lady Capulet appeared in Juliet’s bedroom. We had time to see Romeo wake up and start getting dressed, followed by Juliet’s attempts to make him stay a bit longer. His eager response soon made her see sense, as she realised she could lose him for ever if he was caught there, and he finally left her on her own just in time for her mother’s entrance. At least Lady Capulet had changed for bed before visiting her daughter, which explained the delay.
After their double-meaning chat about taking revenge on Romeo, Lady Capulet told her daughter she was to be married and then we saw the new Juliet, claws out and ready to strike. She must have got that from her father, because he wasn’t too pleased when he found out his daughter wasn’t going to do as she was told. He was cuddly at first, hugging Juliet in a rather creepy, over-physical way, but he didn’t look at her once while Lady Capulet was explaining the position, and then he got angry enough to try and slap the girl; fortunately the nurse intervened.
With everyone in the family against her, Juliet was quick to realise that she had to get help elsewhere, and headed off to the Friar’s cell. The bed stayed in place for most of the remainder of the evening, so the Friar’s cell was located on our side of the roundabout. Paris was there, looking very smug and self-satisfied, and showing a degree of possessiveness when talking to Juliet that made my flesh crawl – a younger version of her father. Left alone with the Friar, Juliet took a flick knife out of her pocket and threatened to kill herself. The Friar managed to get the knife from her, and took it away with him when he left to get the vial of poison.
When he came back, she knelt on the bed to listen to his explanation of the plan, and she stayed there when he left, now back in her own room. They skipped the fake reconciliation with her father along with the hurried preparations for the marriage the next day. Her mother and the nurse came on, Juliet asked to be left alone and they obliged, with the nurse making her usual lewd comments on the way out.
Juliet went through her concerns about the poison, the Friar and his intentions, and the possible horrors of waking up too early in the tomb. These lines were accompanied by some sound effects, and although it may have been trimmed a little, most of the speech was there. Having hidden the vial under her pillow before her mother arrived, she took it out and drank it off, then lay down on the bed. There were noises off, and then the lights came up for the nurse’s entrance to discover the body. Lady Capulet was wearing an emerald green dress for the wedding, and her grief, as well as the nurse’s was very clear. When the Friar came to ask if they were ready to go to church, it raised a laugh, but not an inappropriate one.
Lady Capulet was sitting on the floor and being cradled by the nurse, while Capulet sat beside Juliet’s body on the bed. The Friar left, and Capulet straightened Juliet’s body before leaving. There was a song using the poem from Cymbeline – Fear No More The Heat O’ The Sun – and some of the cast (or crew?) came on and placed a white cover over the whole bed, turning it into a tomb. The bed/tomb stayed on the roundabout, and there were some bells chiming as Romeo made his next entrance. Balthasar gave him the news more quickly than usual, and Romeo left the stage after “O mischief, thou art swift to enter in the thoughts of desperate men!”
It was a woman who brought the letter back to the Friar, and then the apothecary came on in the far left entrance – it was hard to see him in the gloom. I gathered that he had a knife to protect himself, but Romeo took it off him. The idea that money was a worse killer than the apothecary’s poison was well expressed.
There was a rumbling sound in the background which grew louder, and several bright strip lights were brought on; these were positioned vertically on stands, and placed around the edges of the acting area to create the Capulet mausoleum. It was very effective, and also made it possible to see the action pretty clearly. Another covered bed was placed in the main entrance to represent Tybalt’s tomb – I could just see the end of it out of the corner of my eye.
Paris was the first to enter the mausoleum, and there was no sign of a servant. Romeo was the next to arrive, and he killed Paris very quickly. Romeo than took off the sheet which was covering Juliet, making a passing reference to Tybalt’s corpse in the other tomb. He sat beside Juliet, hugging her body for one last time, and we could see her feet start to twitch – they only just missed each other! He threw Juliet’s arms around him before he took the poison (I think), and there was a lot of shaking and twitching as he died. He ended up lying across the lower half of Juliet’s body just as she woke up.
She managed to roll him over and off her, so that he was sprawled face up at the end of the bed. No poison left – “O churl” – so she had to grab his knife and cut her throat, losing the “this is thy sheath” line in the process. She sat at the head of the bed, upright against the head rail, and slumped down as she died. This was the sight that greeted the Duke and the parents as they came into the mausoleum.
The Friar was distraught as he explained what had happened. When he finished his story, he collapsed by the bed, holding Romeo’s leg; for all sorts of reasons, this was one Friar who wouldn’t be meddling again. Montague promised to raise a statue to Juliet, Capulet responded with the second statue, and the Duke finished it off with the usual lines. By this time, we were both much happier with our evening, and the sizeable audience (about three-quarters full) gave them plenty of applause.
© 2015 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me