By William Shakespeare
Directed by Jonathan Humphreys
Venue: Crucible Theatre
Date: Tuesday 13th October 2015
We’re so glad that we came up to Sheffield to see this production. The version we saw at the Tobacco Factory earlier this year was very good, so our expectations for this performance were muted. Yet the creative team and the actors provided an evening to remember, so although there were no hugely innovative interpretations, the clarity of the dialogue and the intensity of feeling, especially from the two leads Freddie Fox and Morfydd Clark, made for a great evening of theatre.
They clearly didn’t spend much on the set, mind you. We were let in about fifteen minutes before the off, as there was an actor sitting on stage throughout the pre-show. This has become a regular occurrence this year, from Jamie Ballard in The Merchant of Venice at Stratford through the Chekov season at Chichester to Sheffield. Well, these things often happen in clusters. Apart from the actor, who was sitting in a chair near the back, the stage was pretty empty, so I had just enough time to scribble down a few notes, which I will expand with the additional info from the performance.
The flooring was all chipboard, flat at the front rising up via three stage-spanning steps to a higher area at the back. Behind these was a wall of corrugated iron sheets (probably plastic) in several sections. At the start there was a wide central opening, as for a warehouse, while on the right hand was an obvious door. Above this door was a large megaphone speaker, and I could see downlighting behind the middle panels on both sides. Later on I realised there was a door in the left side as well which was split into two parts; only the upper section was opened for the apothecary scene.
The rest of this rear wall moved around in all sorts of ways. Not only did the doors open and close to create different heights and widths of entrance, they also had sections which lifted up to create a wide bar (for Capulet’s party), and all of the changes were carried out smoothly, without interrupting our concentration on the performance – just how I like it.
In the middle right corner – it’s a hexagon after all – stood a tall telegraph or telephone pole; there were two short wooden poles attached near the top which left things ambiguous. Underneath were piled several bin bags and cardboard boxes, reminiscent of the binmen strikes of the early 1970s. Here and there we could see some likely trapdoors in the floor, with one being very obvious as it had a handle and hinges. As it turned out there were three square holes for the steam room where Romeo met up with Mercutio and Benvolio after Capulet’s party, and a stonking big hole in the middle which was used to bring up Juliet’s bed and her tomb. I’ll come to the obvious trapdoor near the front later.
So to the actor. He was wearing blue joggers with tatty trainers and a light top with a medium brown jacket – modern scruffy. He sat on a white plastic chair and looked like he was either very depressed or bloody knackered and trying to find a comfortable position to have a nap. Or possibly both. Beside him sat a large portable stereo which produced some tinkly classical-style music. I couldn’t hear it very well, even though we were some of the first people in when they opened the doors, because of the bloody BIRDSONG which was tweeting and twittering away at a surprisingly loud volume! To be fair, the growing audience also did its best to drown out both the music and the birdsong, even raising the volume of their conversation when the birdsong got louder. The house wasn’t full, but there were plenty in the audience all the same, and it sounded like most had their mouths going.
Finally the chap in the chair sat up and turned off the almost inaudible stereo. As the lights came up on the stage and down on us, the chattering came to a swift end, helped by some shushing from the younger members of the audience. There were some chimes in the background, and then Sampson (for it was he) spoke the prologue. Having checked the running time before we went in, I knew it was around one hour ten minutes each half, so they had taken the “two hours’ traffic of our stage” to heart. (We had also been warned about partial nudity, strobe, cigarettes, haze, etc., but that’s pretty normal for most productions these days.)
It was a good, brisk start, and the dialogue was already coming across nice and clearly. Gregory joined Sampson, who was now taking a swig out of a can of lager, and told him that some of Montague’s men were coming their way. As it turned out, Abram was simply adding a bin bag or two to the collection of rubbish around the pole and, but for a chance look to the back of the stage, might never have seen Sampson’s thumb-biting insult. Once he did though, it wasn’t long before the men were squaring up to one another, pausing only for Sampson to check the legal position on an admission of thumb-biting – first laugh of the night. Tybalt was already coming down the far left stairs – could smell a fight brewing from miles away – and Benvolio must have entered somewhere on the right, because they were soon all at it.
It began with Abram kicking Sampson in the balls – ouch! – and then one of the empty crates put out with the rubbish was grabbed and smashed against something to create a makeshift weapon. More bits of rubbish were spread about the place during the rumpus – our front row seats suddenly seemed quite vulnerable – and with the ladies of both houses joining in as best they could in support of their husbands, it was fast, furious and totally believable. These people meant business, and only the death of an opponent could satisfy their blood lust.
The Prince came down the central aisle and stood just off the stage with a megaphone, striving to make himself heard over the din. It took a few lines before the combatants stopped long enough for the Prince’s authority to kick in, but his instruction to drop their weapons was quickly obeyed (and without some of the excesses of other productions). Although younger than most Princes we’ve seen, Hugh John was convincing in his exercise of power, and showed no favouritism to either Capulet or Montague; indeed, his threat – “your lives shall pay the forfeit of the peace” – was all too credible. The seriousness of this warning coupled with the simmering resentment we could see in the families themselves showed the strength of the feud very clearly – these people were not remotely ready to give up their desire for revenge. It was a short scene, but a very powerful one, and set up the context for Romeo and Juliet’s story very well. As the Prince strode onto the stage, I noticed a lady vicar had been standing behind him, all in black with the usual dog collar.
Montague and his wife found out as much as they could from Benvolio, before Romeo himself was spotted and they left. When Romeo came on stage, he stayed on the raised area at the back to begin with, and although he delivered the lines very well, he kept very still. Later, he joined Benvolio and became a bit livelier, including the comparison dialogue for which a lady further along the front row was selected as tonight’s “passing fair”. Throughout it all he impressed me with his intelligence, and he gave a good interpretation of the lines; this was a man sick with infatuation but not depressed as such, just moody and emotionally self-indulgent. Incidentally, despite the vast amount of rubbish strewn about the stage, the line “what fray was here?” was cut, along with Romeo’s subsequent reasoning about love and hate.
With those two off, Capulet and Paris entered for their short scene. Peter also entered, although as he was dressed in a high-vis jacket and hard hat, we could be excused for not realising who he was. He was also equipped with a leaf-blower – I had wondered how they would get the rubbish off the stage – and Capulet had to stop his opening line after a few words as the noise from the blower interrupted him. Paris and he stood waiting to begin while Peter cleared most of the stage, then Capulet attempted the line a second time when he seemed to have stopped, but it was only a lull. Peter spotted some remnants of litter hiding in a corner of the stage and started up the leaf blower to clear that area, cutting Capulet off once more. All very funny, and a good introduction for Peter’s character in this production.
When Peter left, Capulet could finally explain to Paris the latest situation regarding the Prince’s injunction. While Capulet, the concerned parent of a teenage daughter, was casually dressed in trousers, shirt and cardigan, Paris was a youthful, eager suitor in a suit and bow tie, sporting a hint of curl in his fringe but earnestness in his demeanour. Peter came back on at the appropriate moment to receive the written instructions from his employer. Out of his workman’s attire, he was much more sedately dressed. His frizzy long hair was paired with trousers (possibly corduroy), a knitted waistcoat and glasses, and with his Yorkshire accent he reminded me of Alan Bennett. Admittedly a younger Alan Bennett on speed and without the benefit of a basic education, but with just that air of prissiness. It was a lovely performance, and the night had only just begun.
Fortunately for the unlettered Peter, Romeo and Benvolio returned to the stage just in time, continuing their earlier conversation and sharing a roll-up. Romeo went to the back left of the stage and sat on the steps, while Benvolio was located front left for these lines, and Peter took up a position near Romeo, holding out the piece of paper for him to read, giving us some laughter even before Romeo acknowledged Peter’s presence. Peter nearly left the stage altogether when he believed that Romeo wasn’t literate, but was called back and willingly handed over the list. Romeo did the usual start of recognition at Rosalind’s name, making it abundantly clear exactly which lady he was in love with, and this time he finished the list off after a long pause. Peter left, presumably clear about whom he had to invite – didn’t notice any sign of him memorising the names – and after some more references to the lady in the front row, Romeo and Benvolio scampered off as well.
Just a regular-sized door at the back now to indicate we were indoors, and Lady Capulet came on in a bronze-coloured catsuit. With her big hairdo she reminded me of the 1980 super-glossy styles, so although many of the costumes would have slotted directly into a 1960s setting, I felt the designer was keeping to a broader range of dates. The nurse was a woman of ample girth and as talkative as they come. Her long ramblings were entirely normal for this type of character, and, like her husband, Lady Capulet found a servant prevented her from speaking her lines. Juliet was quite happy with the nurse’s story, even the repetitions, and joined in by saying the last “Ay” herself, quickly followed by “And stint thou too”. She wasn’t embarrassed at the subject matter or concerned at her mother getting impatient, just aware that something else was going on; this was a good-natured relationship within her sheltered upbringing.
Juliet showed no particular concern about the idea of marriage; her first reply to her mother was very matter-of-fact. Lady Capulet didn’t mention her own age at all, while the nurse’s interjections were very entertaining, and even with Juliet having very few lines I could tell she had a Welsh accent. Peter came on to deliver his message wearing yellow rubber gloves and carrying a plunger and a duster – much laughter.
The young men’s masks tonight were made of brown cardboard, and after a few minutes I realised they were all wolf heads. The elastic on Mercutio’s mask broke when he tried to put it on, so he just held it in his hand for the rest of the scene, and for once I was aware that he didn’t really need a mask for disguise as he had been invited to the party. In any case, the banter between Romeo and Mercutio was OK but nothing special. For Queen Mab, Mercutio did the hoof beats by drumming his own feet, and as usual it went on far too long which made Romeo’s intervention very welcome. Romeo himself was still the love-sick young man, though not as drippy as some we’ve seen.
The scene quickly changed to the party. Lots of people came on stage, also wearing cardboard masks, with the men being wolves and the ladies, sheep. A long row of cans of lager ran the length of the bar at the back, and several of the guests were drinking. The music was pretty loud, the beat was strong, a glitterball speckled the stage with light, and with the partygoers spread around the stage, Capulet brought on a microphone to welcome everyone; Peter was helping out by holding the cable so it didn’t get all tangled up. Juliet began the dance next to Paris, and then the movement began to swirl around in various phases. They formed a circle with Juliet in the middle, but just as they were completing it she ducked out and was chased round the stage by Paris. Her parents kept grabbing her to bring them together, and then the bulk of the cast went into slow motion while Romeo spoke his lines – “o, she doth teach the torches to burn bright” – from the rear of the stage.
Juliet had removed her mask for that bit – not that she wore it much at all – and walked around the people near her, looking at them, until she spotted Romeo looking at her. That triggered another burst of regular speed dancing, followed by another pause when Tybalt and Capulet had their exchange; during this section the rest of the cast were doing repetitive hand movements. Tybalt threw his mask down in a temper, and moved to the side of the stage, as did all the others apart from Romeo and Juliet, who stood in the centre to deliver their famous sonnet.
This was very well done. Not just clear but well interpreted, and I think it’s the first time I’ve heard “thus from my lips, by thine my sin is purged” before the first kiss, which worked very well. Juliet was getting quite involved in the second kiss – it goes without saying that Romeo was very keen too – and then the nurse interrupted them before they could do anything more serious. The party broke up, with the necessary identifications being done quite briskly, and once the guests had left the stage, Romeo came back on in search of Juliet’s bedroom window.
Fortunately for him, a balcony appeared in the middle of the rear section to show him the way. But first he had to shake off Mercutio and Benvolio, who followed him on stage – Romeo hid by the far left stairs – and made a nuisance of themselves for a bit. One of them put a beer can on the ground centre stage, so Mercutio threw his jacket over it for his conjuration; when he removed it again, no Romeo. They kept this section remarkably free from lewdness, a welcome relief compared to some efforts we’ve endured, but they also cut Benvolio’s parting line, “…to seek him here that means not to be found”, so that Romeo’s opening “He jests at scars that never felt a wound” didn’t have its usual sense of completion.
I was already enjoying the way they used the space to connect with the audience in this production, and then things got even better. Alerted by God knows what, Romeo turned and realised that this was Juliet’s balcony. To get a better view, and so he could speak to us without being heard, he came and crouched in the front centre aisle, right next to me as it happened. (Forgot to mention where we were sitting this time – now you know.) He spoke directly to me for a couple of lines – I think “’tis not to me she speaks” was one of them – and I can testify to this actor’s charm and talent, as I was totally captivated.
Meanwhile Juliet had obligingly carried out all the necessary actions described by Romeo before speaking up herself. This pair were very well matched, both as actors and characters, with such good delivery of their dialogue that the scene came completely to life. Steve was very taken with Juliet’s emphasis on the ‘Romeo’ part of “wherefore art thou Romeo”, making it clear that it was his family connections that were troubling her and not his present location, while I was impressed with her instant tetchiness at the nurse’s interruptions – suddenly she was a snappy teenager.
Romeo was well up the centre aisle before she called him back, and then he was off to Friar Lawrence’s cell to arrange their marriage. The lady vicar came on stage carrying a mug and was evidently not remotely interested in gardening or herbalism, as all those lines were cut; presumably this Friar Lawrence gets her sleeping potions via the internet. Romeo was back on almost immediately for her greeting to him – keeps them fit, all this running around – and I was well aware of how abrupt this change in his affections must have seemed to the lady. After months of counselling him about Rosalind, suddenly he’s about to get married to someone else! She carried this off pretty well, holding a long pause before “eyes” which got a good laugh (“Young men’s love then lies not truly in their hearts but in their eyes”). Romeo, while suitably chastened by her comments, was still so enthusiastic about his new love that he couldn’t stay quiet for long.
Their departure led to the three holes being opened up in the stage. Mercutio and Benvolio, chests bared, stood in them as if relaxing in a stream bath, and there were a few tendrils of steam and some bubbles to support this. Mercutio got out of his ‘bath’ just before Romeo arrived, and their verbal jousting was brisk and lively, making it clear that Romeo was back to his normal self, much to Mercutio’s delight. Incidentally, the nudity only went as far as their chests: both Mercutio and Benvolio were wearing shorts below.
When the nurse turned up, both she and Peter had their shoes off. He stood on the raised area while she came forward to speak to Romeo, and this time Mercutio did very little sparring with her, just enough to warrant her later complaint to Peter. She used a small battery-operated fan to keep herself cool, and winked at Romeo on “gentlemanlike offer”. She refused his money initially, but although she turned her head away, her handbag was held open in his direction so that he could stuff the notes into it. He missed tonight, but she made sure she had it all before she left – what a professional.
Back in the Capulet household, Juliet was impatient for news, as one might expect. The nurse sat on the stairs and procrastinated as much as she could, even pausing to draw on a ciggie before complaining that she was “out of breath” – laughter. Peter brought the nurse a drink, presumably alcoholic, and Juliet held it out of reach in a vain attempt to coerce the nurse into giving her news, but no luck. Nurse was made of sterner stuff and refused to say anything, so finally Juliet gave in and handed her the drink. Once the nurse did finally tell her the news, the young lady was delighted and was soon scampering off to the Friar’s cell.
The little pre-marriage scene was soon over – Romeo was holding a crucifix and praying at the start – and Mercutio and Benvolio came back on, with Mercutio accusing Benvolio of being ever-eager to fight. Tybalt arrived, words were exchanged and then Romeo came on at the back, Tybalt’s new cousin-in-law. He held out his hand twice to Tybalt to be friends with him; on the second occasion, Tybalt spat at him which produced some gasps from the audience and didn’t please Mercutio at all.
The ensuing fight scene was very good, with both Mercutio and Tybalt looking like they really meant it. I think there was one knife and one sword, but the weapons were soon lost and they came down to hand-to-hand. Tybalt picked up his knife again and used it to stab Mercutio, after which Benvolio helped Mercutio to the raised area at the back where he died. Romeo then attacked the returning Tybalt, disarmed him and killed him bare-handed before fleeing the stage. Benvolio was grabbed by a policeman and held while the families discovered the latest tragedy to hit them both. The Prince was even angrier this time; now one of his kinsmen was dead, too – “Mercy but murders, pardoning those that kill” made his point well.
That was where they took the interval, so it was up to Juliet to get things going again with “gallop apace, you fiery footed steeds.” This was nicely done, and got across her impatience to be with her new husband as soon as possible. The nurse arrived, crying, and despite the inherent confusion of her lines, Juliet soon found out the bad news. This nurse wasn’t as hard to win over as some others we’ve seen, and promised to fetch Romeo for their bridal night.
The Friar came on and called for Romeo to come out through the left-hand door, implying he was hiding out at her cell. Romeo expressed himself so well that his arguments sounded less like a childish temper tantrum and more like an intelligent young man’s explanation of his emotional turmoil. He still collapsed onto the ground at the relevant moment, overcome with his suffering, but he wasn’t immature at all in this scene (which is fine with us, by the way). He had a knife tucked into the back of his jeans, and drew it out to kill himself, holding it up high so that the Friar had time to run over and grab it from him. Romeo put Juliet’s ring on the chain which also held his crucifix, and left with the nurse to go to his new wife’s bedroom.
I wasn’t sure if Paris recognised how inappropriate it was to ask to see Juliet when her cousin had just been killed, but he didn’t seem to resent Capulet turning him down. Capulet himself was almost completely off the stage before he came back to agree to the marriage, and then sent his wife to give Juliet the ‘good’ news. After they left, Romeo and Juliet came out onto the raised area at the back, with Romeo putting his shirt back on. They came forward and Juliet did her best to stop him from leaving, but he’d hardly begun to talk about how happy he was to die if that’s what Juliet wanted before she changed her mind and told him to go. The news of her mother’s imminent arrival helped to speed things up, and they used the trapdoor front left for Romeo’s departure via rope ladder.
The double meanings of Juliet’s conversation with her mother came across clearly, and her sudden rebellion was also quite strong. Her father came in, and at first he was all consoling towards his beloved daughter. Then he found out that she was refusing the husband he’d arranged for her, and things turned very nasty indeed: he slapped her and she fell to the ground. But we could see that he was suffering too; there were tears in his eyes even though he was angry with her. His threat of casting her out to fend for herself came across as very real and very drastic.
Next the Friar was talking with a happy Paris, trying to find out what had happened and presumably hoping to persuade Paris to delay the wedding. Fortunately Juliet’s arrival brought that conversation to a close, and although Paris forced a kiss on her before leaving, I would say he was being insensitive rather than nasty.
Juliet had been holding one hand behind her back, so it was no surprise that she soon brought out the knife she’d been carrying and threatened to kill herself with it. Although the dialogue implies that it’s Juliet’s courage in making this threat which suggests the potion option to the Friar, I noticed that she took the bottle of liquid out of her pocket to give to Juliet, which seemed suspiciously like premeditation to me. Still, when an actor is stuck in the middle of a large stage with no convenient storage solution nearby from which a bottle can quickly be retrieved, it’s a case of ‘needs must’. During this scene there were some deep low chimes which created a sense of dread.
As Peter carried a huge pack of loo rolls across the stage in preparation for the wedding (more laughter), a hole opened up in the middle of the stage allowing Juliet’s bed to come up. I think they skipped the apology to her father, although with so many cuts it’s hard to remember exactly what was in and what was out. In any case, Juliet was soon sitting on her bed and pondering some of the issues around taking the Friar’s potion. After she drank it off, she sank back onto the bed while music played. The nurse came to wake her up, using a party popper as the alarm call. It failed. She soon realised that Juliet was dead, and called out for help. When Capulet came in he was carrying three party balloons, which raised a laugh, but they were soon all mourning yet another death in the family.
The bed sank down, and when Romeo came on he sat on the edge of the hole to tell us about his dream. Balthasar’s news changed his attitude, and he went over to the door on the left to get the poison from the apothecary. With most of him hidden behind the door, the poor apothecary was something of a nonentity, but he did give Romeo the requested poison in a little bottle, wrapped in a plastic bag (does the 5p charge apply?).
Back in Verona, a nun reported to the Friar her failure to deliver the letter to Romeo, and the Friar hurried off to the tomb to rescue Juliet. The central hole was open all this time, and now a plinth rose up with Juliet’s body lying on it. Paris came down the stairs on the left with his servant to visit her, and after a few moments we could see the beam of a torch shining on the wall on the right hand side. Romeo spoke to Balthasar near the top of the stairs, before coming down to look at Juliet’s body. Paris had been hiding by the rear wall, and came forward to challenge Romeo, but Romeo soon despatched him and left his body on the rear area.
Again, this scene was kept pretty short, although we got the main points loud and clear. Romeo drank off his potion, and despite a few spasms of pain, managed to clamber onto the plinth so he could lie beside Juliet. She began to move just as he died – not before – and after finding there was no poison left for her – “O churl!” – took his dagger and stabbed herself.
We’d had a few lines between the Friar and Balthasar in the meantime, but now the rear doors opened wide, bright lights shone through and a single guard came forward to check out the scene, followed by the Prince. The parents of the two dead children weren’t far behind, and it was nice to see Lady Montague there as well. The Friar told all, and while I couldn’t see the Prince’s expression at this point, I reckoned the Friar’s previous good behaviour would help to get her off all charges. We were also treated to the promises of statues tonight, although as Capulet wasn’t looking at Montague when he promised to add Romeo’s statue to Juliet’s, I’m not sure how heartfelt this apparent reconciliation was. Perhaps he was just too grief-stricken to participate fully – he does have very few lines here, after all.
The final lines were spoken by the guard tonight; played by the same actor who did the opening prologue as Sampson, this brought the performance full circle, and we gave them plenty of applause to send them on their way.
This was a very good interpretation of the play, much trimmed but pacey and with some lovely performances, especially the two young leads. The conflict between the two families was clearly demonstrated a number of times, and this raised the stakes for the two young lovers, making their relationship all the more desirable from the audience’s point of view. We really wanted them to succeed, and that’s what makes this a tragedy; their parents’ silly feud made it impossible for them to be together easily and naturally, and the violence led to their eventual double suicide. They still had some bad luck on the way, but their relationship was always going to run into trouble in this Verona. Well worth the journey, and an interesting contrast with the productions we saw earlier this year.
© 2015 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me