By William Shakespeare
Directed by Sally Cookson
Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston
Date: Thursday 19th March 2015
One of the lovely things about the number of Shakespeare productions being put on these days is that we get a chance to compare and contrast performances much more quickly than before. This is a fairly typical case: an early performance of one production followed a few weeks later by a completely different version with a reprise of the first one close on its heels. There were some interesting similarities amongst the many differences, and both had a lot to offer with their individual take on the play.
This was a touring production, and while it also used modern dress, the set was both more elaborate and less definite; there were times when I felt the location wasn’t clear unless you knew the play quite well and that was a bit of a distraction. Both productions used music, this second one much more than the first, and, we both felt, much more intrusively. Stylised movement was also evident in both but again more so here than at the Tobacco Factory.
One of the biggest changes to the regular play this time around was the restricted cast, the doubling choices and the characters they dropped or merged with others. In this respect, the most dramatic (in both senses of the word) choice was to have one actress play ‘Capulet’, a blend of both of Juliet’s parents. This meant a huge reduction in the dialogue, as barring a split personality there was little need for the Capulets to discuss matters between themselves, and gave Maureen Beattie (we’re in safe hands here) a much stronger role to show off her talents. Mercutio had also had a sex change, and given that Laura Elphinstone had also taken on a feminised male role in The White Devil recently at the RSC, she was well suited to playing a female version of this most ‘mercurial’ of characters. With Tybalt being played by Felix Hayes, whose most recent Shakespearean roles had been brilliantly comic, and Matt Costain (Michael Boyd’s RSC History Cycle) doubling Paris and the Duke, we expected the cast to handle the dialogue well, and that was certainly one of this production’s strengths.
The set was large, and took up the full width of the Rose Theatre’s broad stage. A sizeable central platform just below the level of the first balcony was supported by chunky wooden pillars, as were the various sets of stairs leading up to it. The steps on the left were in two sections with a smaller landing between them, and angled up diagonally to the platform. On the right, the two sections of stairs were closer to the platform; one lot came down right beside the platform to another landing with the lower section of stairs at right angles to that. This meant that there was a forest of pillars for characters to move among or hide behind, and as the performance progressed, I noticed that some props were hidden behind them as well.
The balconies around the back of the stage were also being used this time. To the left of the main platform, another balcony jutted out with the musicians’ area – we could see keyboards and a brass instrument from our seats by the right aisle (front seated row). To the left of the musicians was a large screen with the word “ROMEO” on it in blue letters; at first I thought it was a neon sign but the way the word disappeared and reappeared at various times during the play ruled that out. “JULIET” was displayed on another screen to the right of the platform and on the upper balcony – two lovers and a mezzanine, as Steve dubbed it. Above all this hung a collection of strip lights in a random pattern; these lit up from time to time in different colours, but were blue before the start. With steps down to the pit on both the right and left of the stage front, we expected some exits and entrances to come our way, and we also spotted lots of handholds on several of the pillars, so climbing was a given.
The audience was a bit sparse, but there were plenty of school parties, so the noise levels were somewhat higher than usual before the off. As a result, the opening low rumble and intermittent drumbeats failed to get everyone’s attention, and as the cast came on to take their places at a slow, steady walk, there was still some chatter until lots of shushing got the message across. Even so, I was aware of a sense of gloomy menace, which isn’t a bad start for this particular play.
The cast shared the opening chorus between them, lined up along the front of the stage looking darkly at the audience (I think this was a production choice and not a comment on the initial rowdiness). They began together with “Two households”, loudly and in unison, and then moved around the stage to new positions as they went through most of the opening lines, often standing with arms folded or held across the chest. When it came to “piteous overthrows”, they mimed being grief stricken, with some of them almost collapsing onto the stage. Romeo and Juliet came on to the front of the stage and stood looking at each other – they were spotlit while the others were still in a half-light. The rest of the cast pulled them apart, but eventually lifted them up to the platform where they held hands; the lights above the stage flickered and then they went into a clinch. Pulled apart again, they were helped back down to the stage and the chorus continued. This reminded us of the dumb show at the start of The Murder of Gonzago in Hamlet.
As they completed the chorus, the cast formed two lines on the stairs leading up on opposite sides of the platform, and I realised that they were in factions – Capulets to the left, Montagues to the right. Capulet herself was guilty of the tongue-biting incident, and in a matter of moments, total war had broken out on stage. It was very energetic, but not entirely clear despite our knowledge of the play. At first the actors were fighting each other on the front section of stage under red lights, and then they grouped together up on the platform to demonstrate the deplorable behaviour of the leaders of their respective factions as they cheered on the fighters down below – this was under regular lights so was clearly a different group. There were several rounds of fighting and all to very loud Metallica-style music. At the end of this they all put on their jackets to listen to the Duke telling them off, after which all but Montague and Benvolio left the stage.
It was while Benvolio was telling Montague what had happened that I realised they were all miked up! Of course this was understandable given the volume of the music they were using to underscore the performances, but it still came as a shock to hear that they carried on using the mikes even when the musicians were relatively quiet or silent. Romeo came on and his father left, and then Romeo and Benvolio sat on the landings at either side of the stage to have their little chat. Benvolio had been knocked about a bit during the fight – it was Tybalt’s doing as I recall – and when he stood up and moved around it was clear he was in pain. This led to Romeo’s realisation that there had been a fight – “what fray was here?” – and then they left the stage. I had spotted earlier that the JULIET sign had gone blank, and now the ROMEO sign, which had been lit during this scene after Romeo’s arrival, also went blank. They also avoided any comparisons with audience members.
A chap in a white jacket came on and began scrubbing the steps up to the platform on the left, presumably to get rid of the bloodstains after the fight; we realised quite soon that this was Peter, the Capulet’s servant. Capulet walked down from the first balcony level and off stage, while the nurse ran around a bit calling for Juliet. Tybalt came on after Capulet had left, and as he walked up the stairs to enter the Capulet house (I presume – this was one of those times when the location wasn’t entirely clear) he was presented with Peter’s back. To show his status (and to give us a clue to the less than pleasant side of his personality), Tybalt took off his jacket and threw it down beside Peter, who then realised Tybalt was there and got out of his way, taking the jacket to hang up on a pillar on the other side of the stage.
He was hanging the jacket up just as Capulet re-entered with Paris, and while they discussed the possibility of a marriage between him and Juliet, Peter brought them drinks. Capulet’s concern for Juliet’s welfare was much the same, though it came from a mother instead of a father, but there was more of a sense that Capulet had to arrange a good match for her child as there was no male head of the household to protect them all. She took out a notebook when she mentioned the “long-accustomed feast” and wrote down some names on one of the sheets which she tore out to give to Peter. She and Paris then left, and Peter informed us he had a literacy problem. He had a foreign accent, and later on I realised they were calling him Pedro, but to avoid confusion in these notes I’ll continue calling him Peter as in the text. Tybalt wandered out from underneath the platform on which Peter was standing, but after a moment’s reflection, Peter decided not to ask the nasty man for help and left to find someone who could tell him what was on the page.
Fortunately (or not, depending on your point of view) he came across Romeo and Benvolio who were still sparring with each other over Romeo’s infatuation. Romeo took the sheet of paper from Peter, and he started going through the list so quickly that Peter had to ask him to slow down. When he began again, Peter listened intently and ticked off each name on his fingers. When Romeo read out “her fair niece Rosaline” he froze and put the paper aside, so that Benvolio had to take the list and finish reading it out for Peter. It wasn’t hard after that for Benvolio (and us) to guess just who Romeo was in love with, nor was it difficult to persuade him to go to that same party, even though his motive wasn’t the same as his friend’s.
As Capulet called the nurse to her, we could see Juliet, dressed like a tomboy in jeans and red check shirt and with short cropped hair, talking with Tybalt on the upper balcony. They seemed to be getting on very well, which helped to illustrate their connection for the later scenes when Tybalt has been killed. The nurse was dressed in bright orange clothes and used a West Indian accent, and for once Capulet didn’t try to chase her away when Juliet arrived. As they spoke, the nurse began to dress Juliet for the party, taking off her shirt and jeans and putting on a plain gold-coloured shift dress. Capulet made no reference to her own age when Juliet was born – a wise move – and Juliet herself was very docile while her mother was there. After Capulet left, however, the expression on her face suggested she wasn’t keen on the idea of marriage to anyone at this point. I also noticed that she put her trainers back on – not a great match for the dress, but given the upcoming activity, a very good choice.
This was our first meeting with Ms Mercutio, and her character came across as spiky and bitchy rather than good fun. Her Queen Mab speech was very clear, and her behaviour when she talked about a soldier’s dreams suggested to me that she was speaking from bitter experience – she seemed angry and unhappy. The rest of the speech seemed to sink her even deeper into a depression, so that Romeo hugged her before making his comment “Peace, peace”. I noticed that the Romeo sign wasn’t lit at this point, so it wasn’t just as simple as when either character was on stage – there was something more complicated going on (and was it worth finding out what?)
The party scene started out with some classical music being played while Peter ran around talking Italian to nobody at all. This blended into a synth beat music version of the same classical tune as the cast came on wearing bling sunglasses. They stood in a group on the platform and swayed apart to create an opening for Juliet to come through, then followed that with some formal dance movements, partly on the platform and partly down on the stage – they moved around a bit. The nurse managed to make her dance movements funkier than the rest of them.
Paris lifted Juliet up and danced with her for a time while the others sat or stood to one side, then he and the others froze while Juliet pulled away from him and walked round the set, going up on to the platform and then down the other side. Romeo came on via the upper balcony, while the rest of the actors restarted their choreographed movements, swarming around Paris who was in the middle of the stage and who appeared to be holding on to Juliet to stop her from getting away. They all froze while Romeo spoke his lines, apart from Tybalt, who walked over to the left stairs and up on to the landing to deliver his lines about the intruder, only to be joined by Capulet who told him off in no uncertain terms.
Romeo sat on the platform, gazing at Juliet while the others continued their slow-motion movement. After Tybalt left, the group broke up again, and Juliet managed to get onto the platform where she faced Romeo for their sonnet. They delivered the lines very well – the rest of the cast were again frozen for this bit, and the music was quieted for the initial part – with Romeo lifting up his sunglasses after the first two lines. They got even closer, ending up with a kiss; at this point they were on the left landing, and the rest of the cast was clustered on the right of the stage, looking in their direction. They completed the sonnet with a second kiss, at which point the nurse moved towards them and called for Juliet to go to her mother. She stayed behind a little to tell Romeo who Juliet was, and when she rejoined Juliet on the platform, told her who Romeo was. All in all, a busy evening’s work.
The party had broken up after the second kiss, so the stage was clear for Mercutio and Benvolio to chase Romeo, who was hiding behind a pillar back right. They made the usual complaints and jokes, though in Mercutio’s case they seemed overly crude coming from a woman. Once they left via the pit, Romeo came forward and was looking out into the audience when he referred to “it is the east, and Juliet is the sun.” Coupled with a bright light at the back of the audience balcony, this left me a little confused as to where we were meant to be looking. However Juliet soon came out onto the platform, and normal service was resumed.
She stood at the back of the platform while Romeo gave his thoughts down below, and this was another of the sections where I felt the location wasn’t established clearly enough. Why couldn’t he just run up the steps to talk to her, I wondered? Of course I knew why, but I didn’t get it from the performance at all. Juliet came forward to deliver her lines, and this time I found the music behind the dialogue was a definite distraction. There’s plenty of ‘music’ in the lines themselves, and I found the effect of the actual music was to distance me emotionally from the characters and their experience, which struck me as a silly thing to do at any time, but especially in this play and in this scene. I will just mention that both the ROMEO and JULIET were on display at this point – not a surprise.
The music stopped once Romeo spoke to Juliet, but started up again on “What satisfaction…” The dialogue was clear, but I wasn’t engaged with this couple and their situation yet, which was a definite drawback. The Friar came on during Romeo’s last lines, carrying a basket which he put down on the left landing. He gave us some of the botany lecture as he clambered over the set looking for the wild flowers which had been secreted about the place (I assume). The only sign that he was a friar was the crucifix dangling around his neck; otherwise he was rather scruffily dressed, but given his current task that seemed reasonable. Romeo rushed on to the stage, keen to get the Friar’s instant approval for his plan to marry Juliet, even grabbing his Bible and stole from a shelf behind one of the central pillars. The Friar put them back, but we did get to see a little box in which he stashed his potions – that will be coming out later on, we thought.
Mercutio and Benvolio ran around the set for a bit and then Peter and the nurse came on through the audience. Peter was carrying lots of shopping bags, and went to sit on the right hand landing while the nurse was being ‘teased’ by Mercutio. The song which Mercutio sang this time began “She’s a big wench and a bonny wench”, and she managed to get a few lines out before the nurse chased her and Benvolio off the stage.
Peter was laughing when he denied seeing any “man use you at his pleasure”. After warning Romeo to be good to Juliet, the nurse was delighted when he said “married”, and gave him a long hug. She was also happy to take his money, and as she and Peter left through the audience, she excitedly told a woman on the other side of the aisle “them getting married”.
Her exuberance had waned by the time she got back to Juliet though. Juliet had been childishly impatient at having to wait to hear the nurse’s news, and I doubt that the vigorous back rub she was giving the nurse would have done her any good, but this just made it very clear how much she’d changed from the first time we saw her. The nurse sent Peter off with the bags and brought forward a stool to sit on. The change from “and a virtuous” to “where is your mother” was very well done, and even got a laugh (those were in short supply today). Juliet was thrilled to find out she was getting what she wanted, and may have hugged the nurse before heading off to meet her future husband.
Things moved pretty fast after this. A small crucifix was hung on the central front pillar, and the Friar put on the stole and brought out his Bible. Romeo was there in a suit, and Juliet soon arrived to join him. The rest of the cast assembled on stage and sat around as the Friar performed the ceremony, while the nurse sang, and sang beautifully, a song about being someone’s only love. Then Romeo and Juliet kissed, and most of the cast left the stage apart from Mercutio and Benvolio. Mercutio had a gun, which worried Benvolio (understandably) but it was tucked away when Tybalt approached; Mercutio lit a fag when she saw Tybalt coming.
Romeo entered from the front eating an apple, and in preparation for their fight Tybalt took out a hammer and put it on the ground, then carefully took off his jacket, folded it and gave it to his companion before tucking his tie into his shirt front. There was enough dialogue for him to be able to do this in a deliberate way, which gave his actions an air of menace.
Romeo wasn’t keen to fight, so Mercutio leapt down from wherever she was perching at the time – I think it was one of the landings – grabbed the hammer and attacked Tybalt with it. There was a melee, Tybalt got the hammer back and Mercutio took out her gun. Romeo tried to grab the gun, and this gave Tybalt the opportunity to gouge Mercutio with the claw end of the hammer. Benvolio took the gun off Mercutio in the kerfuffle, and after Tybalt and his companion had run off and they realised how badly hurt Mercutio was, Benvolio put the gun down on the left landing. No prizes for guessing what happened to it a few moments later. Mercutio died on stage, with Benvolio checking her pulse at the neck. Tybalt came back on and Romeo, having taken the gun, shot him in the head. It was that fast: no final words, no name-calling, just one quick, deadly shot.
Tybalt’s body was on the right landing, Mercutio’s was lying on the ground on the left of the stage. While Romeo ran off, Capulet and Montague came on at opposite sides of the stage, deliberately swerved to avoid each other as they crossed in the middle, and went to mourn over their dead relative/associate. The Duke came on to the platform wanting to know what had happened, and was not best pleased with the situation. Benvolio began to describe the events, and as he did so, the dead bodies got up and joined the Duke on the platform. Juliet was on the upper balcony, singing in a high, clear voice, but I’m not sure what the words were or even if there were any until later. She was standing on the railing and using a wrist strap for safety. Romeo also came on to the platform, as part of Benvolio’s description of events, and both Mercutio and Tybalt looked round at him when he appeared.
The Duke announced Romeo’s banishment and left, while Romeo did a bit of running on the spot, presumably to indicate his escape to Mantua. The ROMEO and JULIET signs were now red. The rest of the cast stood down below, looking up at him – he was the only one lit. This went on for some time, then there was a final high note and the lights went out. Interval.
The musicians came on first for the start of the second half, and gave us some more electronica. Tybalt and Mercutio came back on – unusual to see them after their deaths – crossed over and sat on opposite sides of the stage. Romeo ran on and sat behind a pillar on the left. Then Juliet entered, and as well as speaking some of her lines, she sang a lot of them – “Come, gentle night” made a good song. Tybalt and Mercutio exchanged looks as the nurse delivered her news in her usual garbled fashion. She was standing on the right landing where Tybalt was sitting during this bit; he leaned against her and she stroked his head while she spoke of him. Then Mercutio and Tybalt left the stage to the nurse and Juliet.
There was no music at all for the “banished” section (for this relief, much thanks) and Juliet delivered her lines well. Her change of temperament was very marked; this girl was growing up ultra-quickly. Mercutio came back on to the left landing during Romeo’s talk with the Friar (it’s possible she didn’t leave the stage completely earlier). Romeo’s first discourse on the relative demerits of death and banishment made him seem intelligent and mature enough to be somewhat in charge of his emotions, so his subsequent tantrum, while well done, failed to convince me that he had suddenly turned into a silly boy again. He curled up in a ball on the floor anyway, and the nurse had to hit him on the rump to make him get up.
Moving slowly and smoothly, Mercutio held out a knife during the next section, so that it was readily available for Romeo to grab when he needed it. The Friar got it off him easily enough, and put it back on the landing. Mercutio left when Romeo did, and the Friar took the knife away as Tybalt reappeared on the lower balcony. Capulet came on and took a jacket from him which she gave to Paris as he was about to leave her house. Juliet snuck on to sit at the back of the left landing while Capulet gave her promise to marry her daughter to Paris, and as she left, she went past Juliet who was now standing; they each ignored the other. I found this confusing.
Romeo also came on to the right landing, and then he and Juliet moved towards each other, meeting on the platform. She ran off, so that he was on the platform and she was down below. He came down, they circled each other and then she leapt onto him and they embraced. (She was very short, so presumably he had no problem carrying her.) Their physical contact was part love-making and part fighting, but eventually they moved back up onto the platform and after some more synchronised movements and removal of shirts they got themselves into a much more loving clinch. There was a lot of annoying music at this point, and I have to confess I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on. The youngsters in the audience were giving the usual reactions to the physical stuff as well, though that didn’t bother me this time – they were fairly restrained.
There was no actual sex, of course, they just segued seamlessly from starting their night of passion into the aftermath by means of a change of music and lighting. Birdsong told us it was day again, and they began their long farewells. (And did we hear some phone noises in amongst the birdsong?) Juliet’s talk with her mother/father was much edited, and the nurse hugged her during it, at least until Juliet suddenly turned into a temperamental teenager. Mind you, her mother could dish it out as well. This was good strong, no-holds-barred stuff, and I was feeling more engaged with the performance by this time.
Juliet listened to the nurse’s advice, but kept her feelings to herself until she was alone. When she left to see the Friar, the rest of the cast came on stage and stood in her way. Eventually this stopped, and most of the cast left the stage to the Friar, Paris, Tybalt and Juliet. Juliet was off to one side, and came forward at the appropriate moment. Paris was very sure of himself, and that he would be marrying Juliet, but he wasn’t as nasty towards her as in the Tobacco Factory version. Tybalt was on the left landing when Juliet took out her knife and threatened to kill herself, but he didn’t need to intervene as the Friar talked her down. Tybalt did take out the potion box and placed it near the front corner of the landing so that it was handy for the Friar when he wanted to make up the draught for Juliet – he put a few drops in a small bottle and gave that to her. Tybalt then took out a book and held it out for the Friar, who took it, sat down and began to write after Juliet left; it took me a moment to realise that this was the letter to Romeo. When the Friar had finished it, Tybalt took the piece of paper and handed it up to one of the musicians, then stayed on the landing for the next scene.
All of this was going on while the nurse called for Peter, up to the point when Capulet arrived and Juliet apologised for her behaviour. Capulet and the nurse were very glad to hear she’d changed her tune, and Capulet was so delighted she decided to have the wedding the next day. As they went off to prepare for the wedding – there may have been some scurrying around, but I don’t remember – Juliet stayed on the right landing to voice her concerns about the Friar’s plans. She put the bottle down as she went through most of that speech, and looked across at Tybalt when mentioning that his corpse would be there; he looked at her all through this scene. There was quiet music in the background, but again I found it intrusive during this section.
Tybalt slipped away as Juliet finished her speech and drank the potion. She slumped down on the landing and lay there, curled up as if asleep. The nurse came on stage carrying a large bouquet of white flowers which she gave to Peter; he was carrying a stack of boxes which could have contained the wedding cake, and there was just enough room under his chin for the nurse to place the flowers there.
The nurse then wandered round and up over the platform, calling for Juliet all the way until she arrived at the body lying on the right landing. She howled when she realised that Juliet was dead, and cradled her body until Capulet arrived to see what all the commotion was about. Capulet also held Juliet briefly, and noticed the bottle which Juliet had put back in her pocket; although Capulet took it out and looked at it, there was no other use made of the discovery.
The Friar arrived with Paris, and as the clergyman spoke his lines about putting Juliet in the mortuary, she rose, walked up the stairs and went over to the left landing. The nurse began singing “Oh, break my heart” – another beautiful song – as the rest of the cast brought on LED light stands which were a brilliant white, a bit too bright to look at. They placed these stands around the left landing, so that when Juliet arrived there to take her place in “Capel’s monument”, she was surrounded by white light. Peter spoke snatches of Juliet’s lines about cutting Romeo out into little pieces and putting him up among the stars, all of which added to my confusion, and then Romeo greeted Benvolio in the middle of the stage while the others stood silently around the left landing area.
Everyone moved round as Benvolio ‘left’ – he may well have stayed and become part of the throng – to form a line across the stage. Romeo was now up on the platform – they didn’t half move around in this production – and the rest of the cast did the apothecary’s lines about the efficacy of the poison as they handed it from the far left up to the platform and into Romeo’s hand. There was more movement and freezing as Romeo made his journey to Juliet’s tomb, and then the musician who had received the letter came on to speak to the Friar on the main balcony while the rest of the cast sat down.
They may have been spread around the stage at first, but by the time Juliet woke up just Tybalt and Mercutio were left, sitting on the right hand landing. First though, Romeo arrived at the tomb – forget Paris, Balthasar, etc. – and spoke the opening line of their earlier sonnet, “If I profane…”, as he took her hand briefly, but he broke down and couldn’t go on. He cradled her body, took the poison and collapsed on top of her as he died. She then woke up, and managed to push him off her enough to get up. No lines, but she did produce several wails of grief which were quite moving. At this point I noticed that Mercutio and Tybalt had turned their heads away to avoid seeing this bit, but Tybalt had taken out a knife and was holding it in his outstretched hand.
Juliet tried drinking from the bottle, but there was none left – she may have thrown the bottle away in frustration. She spotted the knife in Tybalt’s hand, and walked across the stage to get it, to the accompaniment of heavy organ chords. This was all happening quite slowly, and I was beginning to lose patience with them. The music changed as a violin and piano joined in, and Juliet stood at the front of the stage doing some breathing exercises before stabbing herself – the lights all went red – and falling to the floor. Mercutio did look over at her briefly during this bit, but then they all got up, more light stands were brought on so that every actor had one, and they spread out across the stage holding the stands. They finished with a chorus version of the final section of the Duke’s closing speech, “A gloomy peace this morning with it brings…”, and then there were some heavy chords and the lights went out to close the performance.
I don’t know what readers who haven’t seen this production will make of these notes. I haven’t been able to get across the almost constant presence of the music, nor the sheer physicality of the performances. Some bits worked very well for me, such as the party scene where Juliet was trying to get away from Paris and he kept pulling her back, and some of the business, such as Tybalt’s use of his jacket to let Peter know he was there, added a nice touch to the action and characterisations. But some of it was just confusing, and one or two bits were simply naff – Romeo’s running on the spot for example, and Tybalt producing a hammer to attack Romeo. The music’s constant presence was also variable. Some sections worked brilliantly, especially the nurse’s two songs – she has a beautiful voice – but at other times the music intruded into what should have been an intimate scene with its insistence that we ‘feel’ something according to its direction. The musicians were super-talented, of course; we just weren’t happy with the placement of some sections of their work.
The costumes were basically modern, although Capulet always wore a long dress (but then she’s posh). Suits or jeans prevailed amongst the rest apart from the nurse, and while I could tell who was who quite easily, this type of design added to the vagueness of much of the production. Where were we? What were the social relationships? Why did any of this matter? With no sense of Juliet being confined within her family’s house, it seemed absurd that she wouldn’t simply run off with Romeo when he was banished, and it says a lot for Audrey Brisson’s performance that she made Juliet’s anguish at being parted from her husband so believable. And while I have great admiration for Maureen Beattie’s abilities, the lack of a father for Juliet took away from the patriarchal nature of the society, making Juliet seem less likely to need permission from a parent to marry whom she chose. The modern dress didn’t help with that aspect either, and again it was down to the actors to hold the line and make us buy in to this semi-modern, semi-Elizabethan world.
Speaking of the actors, I’ve already mentioned Maureen Beattie’s excellent performance as Capulet, and Audrey was very good as Juliet. Felix Hayes was unexpected casting as Tybalt, but he was brilliant at conveying Tybalt’s menace, and was nicely creepy as the ghost, along with Laura Elphinstone as Mercutio. I got the impression from their continued presence after their deaths that they were both overseeing Romeo’s demise, but that Juliet was just collateral damage, hence turning their heads away as she killed herself. Mercutio as a woman was OK, and Laura did a fine job in the part, though at times she seemed to be a toned-down version of Flaminio, her character in The White Devil. Chris Bianchi was great as the Friar and in the brief glimpses we had of Montague, Matt Costain doubled Paris and the Duke to good effect, and while I liked Joseph Drake as Romeo, I felt he would have done even better if this had been a more traditional production which included more of Romeo’s dialogue; not his fault, I put it down to the director’s choices. Javier Marzan was very good as Peter/Pedro, and Sharon D Clarke was brilliant as the nurse, quite apart from her exceptional singing. Daniel Ezra was fine as Benvolio, though there still wasn’t much for him to do. But it was definitely an ensemble production, and they worked well together which undoubtedly helped to keep us watching.
The decision to use movement and music instead of much of the dialogue was not an issue in itself; I may have quibbled about some bits here and there, but this style of production is valid and overall they did it very well. The choice to drop the reconciliation at the end, together with the other decisions, meant that this version focussed very strongly on the two lovers, losing the impact of the social context – the family feud – and removing the sense of inevitability, despite the opening chorus. This may be another reason why I didn’t feel so connected to the lovers’ plight, but I can’t be sure unless I see another production which trims the play in a similar fashion.
If I were seeing this version again, I would find it easier to adjust to their style and probably get much more out of the performance, but on the whole I found it harder to engage with and care about these characters, so the emotional journey wasn’t a major part of my enjoyment. I did like the actors’ performances and those little extra touches which I’ve mentioned, there was some humour, though nothing like as much as we would usually expect, and apart from the last bit dragging its heels a little, the time passed pretty quickly – two hours forty including the twenty minute interval. The audience certainly appreciated it – the youngsters were whooping and hollering at the end – and the cast looked like they were having a good time too. I wouldn’t want to put anyone off seeing this, but it’s helpful to know what to expect, especially for those of us who have a considerable number of productions under our belt. We’re off to Bristol to visit the Tobacco Factory production again next week, so it will be very interesting to see if this performance influences our view of that production.
© 2015 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me