Romeo and Juliet – April 2018

Experience: 5/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Erica Whyman

Venue: RST

Date: Wednesday 25th April 2018

The stories of A View From The Bridge and Romeo and Juliet may have strong similarities, but there was no comparison between last night’s performance of the former and today’s offering of the latter. Last night: strong performances, plenty of tension and an enthralled audience which included many young people. Tonight, the younger audience members were impressed, to judge by the response, but we felt the production was patchy. It’s an early performance, of course, and we would expect the cast to get stronger as the run goes on, but whether we get anything more out of a second viewing remains to be seen.

The stage had been raised up again, not to the ridiculously high level of some early productions in the revamped RST, but still higher than we would have liked. The front row were looking the actors in the ankles, and we were about thigh height, a few rows back and beside the left walkway. The set, by Tom Piper, was dominated by a large black box centre back, with two open sides and steps up on one of the sides to the top. This box was moved around a lot, which slowed things down at times, but from its various positions, the lighting and a few other signals, we could tell where we were meant to be most of the time. The floor was black to match, and there were black panels across the back of the stage which opened to reveal the friar’s garden, a grassy patch with lots of wildflowers which was growing outwards, as if we were looking at it from above. The first level of the side balconies appeared to be in use, with audience in the upper level.

The play began with some thumping chords and lots of people, mostly young, running on stage. They moved around for a bit before settling down into some sort of formation and doing a joint chorus. Their plain black clothes indicated that this would be modern dress, and so it was, although there were hints of earlier periods in the styling of some costumes. One of the young lovers appeared at the back in silhouette – I presume the other one was there, but the box blocked my view – and when the chorus was finished, the group moved the box round to the diagonal and we saw some pretend sex, with the woman throwing the man off. (I won’t mention all the movements of the box from here on, partly because I can’t remember all of them, but mainly because it would get in the way. Just assume it was as lively as the nimblest box you’ve ever seen, and I’ll pinpoint its location when it matters.)

When the chorus had left the stage, a man in a suit and another chap came on, and did some of the opening lines, breaking off when two other men came on. (There may have been a woman in the mix as well, either instead of a man or in addition.) Bear in mind that there was nothing to show from the costumes or the plain set who these people were, and my inability to give them names at this point becomes understandable. (I presume the first two men were Samson and Gregory.) The man in the suit had a knife in his hand, hidden behind his back, but he slunk off stage when the other chap got into a fight with the two newer chaps. Someone else came on, presumably Benvolio (Josh Finan), and tried to stop the brawl, but then Tybalt (Raphael Sowole) entered, and at last we had an easy-to-spot character. It wasn’t just his scowling face, which lit up at the prospect of fighting, killing and maiming, it was the fact that he had his dagger openly displayed in a holster strapped across his chest with the handle pointing downwards for easy and quick access. How he got away with this after the Prince’s edicts is a question probably best left for now: this was a good way to show us this character’s belligerence.

The youngsters in the audience really enjoyed the fighting, but we felt it lacked tension, and it wasn’t long before the Prince, played by Beth Cordingly, put a stop to it. She actually stood between Tybalt and Benvolio to prevent them continuing, before leading most of the participants off the stage at the end of her stint. I noticed that Lady Montague was wearing grey trainers with her long (grey) dress – a very odd combination – and had an arm strap harness for her knife, so perhaps the trainers were just part of her battle gear.

Romeo (Bally Gill) came on wearing the compulsory hoodie (designer-speak for a sulky and/or depressed teenager) and walked past Benvolio before turning back and jumping on him. Their relationship was clearly a strong one, and Steve spotted signs that Benvolio was smitten with his cousin. Their dialogue was a bit tame however, especially when Romeo apparently spotted, from the remarkably unaffected stage, that there had been fighting in the vicinity – how could he tell? Perhaps there were signs which were visible to those higher up in the auditorium, but from my perspective, the stage was as clean as a whistle. Their banter about pretty women got very little response, as I recall, but they were soon on their way, giving us an opportunity to meet the Capulets.

Michael Hodgson had played Capulet in the Sheffield production of Romeo and Juliet in 2015, but that was a heavily edited version, so presumably this was a bigger role for him second time around. He came across as a caring father at this point, but Paris (Afolabi Alli) was a bit of a non-entity: I got no sense of his character. I assumed the messenger was Peter, but realised later, when Peter came on with the nurse, that this was just a generic messenger. He encountered Romeo and Benvolio almost immediately, and after the usual false start, handed Romeo the list of guests to read out. I didn’t notice anything significant in the reading of Rosaline’s name, but Benvolio was on to it like a shot. The messenger was much more cheerful as he invited them to the feast, “if you be not of the house of Montagues”, and Romeo was also looking happier by the end of the scene.

The box was at the back for Lady Capulet’s chat with her daughter. A chair was placed to the rear of the thrust, in the middle, and this was the layout for Juliet’s room. Lady Capulet (Mariam Haque) was another one with a strange fashion sense, pairing a black dress with differently coloured trainers. She sat in the chair at first, but vacated it after she called the nurse (Ishia Bennison) back, allowing the nurse and Juliet (Karen Fishwick) to cuddle up together in it later on. Their relationship was strongly marked as a loving one, with lots of giggling on Juliet’s part when the nurse tickled her.

Juliet was wearing a black vest and leggings when she came on, and by the end of the scene the nurse had helped her into a black dress for the party. Juliet looked a little apprehensive about the marriage idea, but not reluctant enough to put up any sort of resistance.

For the run-up to the party, some steps on wheels were brought on to the left of the box, and the lights went down so we could see stars at the back. Mercutio (Charlotte Josephine) was an Essex ladette, with short hair, a glittery pink jacket, black leggings, and an aggressive attitude. Thanks to her accent and attitude, I found this Mercutio less appealing than most we’ve seen, and of course the change of gender made her relationship with Romeo more ambiguous. Not that they made anything of that in this production, as far as I could see.

I was heartily relieved when Romeo interrupted the Queen Mab speech – a few minutes too late, in my view. Some of the other men in the group looked uncomfortable during it as well, though I assume that was part of their performance rather than any criticism of the production. Mercutio kissed one of the other men at one point, and it wasn’t clear if she was trying to be blokish in a faux-lesbian sort of way, or simply flaunting her ‘girl’ power over the men, as a cousin of the Prince. (Another question not worth pursuing here is why the Prince of Verona has a working-class cousin – perhaps the Italian aristocracy has taken diversity to heart.)

The stairs were moved to the right of the stage and lights were lowered down over the middle area to create the party scene. The band were mostly in the box, though I noticed a guitarist back left and, later, another back right. The music, which was accompanied by flashing lights, was in the now-traditional loud dance style. Everyone was jumping around, enjoying themselves, but the action and sound were muted for the various conversations. First it was Capulet and his cousin who came to the front to reminisce about the old days, then Juliet bumped into Romeo on the crowded dance floor. Romeo spoke his lines about her at the front, while Tybalt appeared on the roof of the box to complain about the gatecrashers, and was joined there by Capulet. Romeo and Juliet stumbled together into the light, centre front, for their sonnet, and did it reasonably well, and there was more dancing until the end of the party. Romeo came back on stage to whisper his name to the nurse when she enquired, with Juliet waiting at the back to hear her news.

With the party done, Romeo escaped from Mercutio and Benvolio by climbing up onto the box and disappearing through a door in the back panels – a bit strange. Mercutio and Benvolio did their bit at the front of the stage – nothing interesting to report – and Romeo emerged again from the back before Benvolio had fully left the stage. Juliet’s arrival was heralded by light shining on the back wall, and she came up from within the box to sit on the roof. A lot of the younger audience members were laughing at Romeo’s lines and reactions, but when the balcony scene got underway, the quality of the production began to improve. I particularly liked Juliet in this scene – she showed a maturity and an understanding of the situation, and her delivery of the lines worked better than Romeo’s. I began to feel some connection to her and the story, which helped, as there was a long way to go to the interval.

Having left Juliet, Romeo visited Friar Laurence at his cell. The box was turned again and the back wall panels opened up to reveal the greenery. We discovered the Friar (Andrew French) on the roof (white shirt and light trousers, no sign of religious affiliation). He probably told us a bit about herbs and their uses – neither Steve nor I have clear memories on this point – but he was suitably surprised by Romeo’s abrupt change of heart. This was another fairly bland section, but I did notice a cluster of vials in the Friar’s trug, which Romeo enthusiastically carried off for him at the end of the scene.

Mercutio and Benvolio were next up, and again there was nothing much to report until Romeo arrived. His attitude had changed enormously since his opening scene, and although they didn’t get the banter across very well, Romeo’s sudden friskiness and delight in verbal sparring was a welcome change to Mercutio (and us). They cut a lot of Mercutio’s rudeness to the nurse, who arrived with Peter (Raif Clarke), a young man in a grey suit. Peter’s few lines were delivered OK, although without any great response from the audience, but we enjoyed the way the nurse hit Romeo with her fan when she was warning him not to treat Juliet badly. She looked set to tell Romeo the ‘falling over’ story from the earlier scene with Lady Capulet, but realised just in time that it might not be the most tactful thing to tell him, so she changed the subject to Paris. Ishia was definitely the class act in this production.

Back in Juliet’s rooms, the young lady herself was showing signs of impatience. When the nurse arrived, she made her way slowly to the chair, refusing to divulge any information until she was rested. She pulled faces to show how much her back was aching, but from the way Juliet was rubbing it, I’m not sure if the nurse was any better off. She finally told Juliet what she wanted to hear, and then we were off to Laurence’s cell again for the marriage. All fine, nothing special.

The encounter between Benvolio, Mercutio and Tybalt was OK. Mercutio was boxing with Tybalt at first – she was quicker and nimbler, while he packed more of a punch. She went up onto the roof of the box and drew her knife, with Tybalt following. Romeo went up to stop them and, in the scuffle, Mercutio was stabbed, though I didn’t see it clearly. Mercutio’s body stayed up there, and Benvolio was also up there when he reported her death. Romeo got Tybalt’s knife quite quickly and stabbed him: if only Tybalt had been as quick to die. Montague, Capulet and the Prince all came on after Romeo had fled, and the Prince went up onto the box roof to view Mercutio’s body. All OK, but no great insights or innovations.

To remove Tybalt’s body, most of the cast came on with tealights in red holders, or placed red candles of different heights round the sides of the stage along with red roses. Tybalt’s body was placed on a cloth and dragged off: I didn’t see what happened to Mercutio’s body as there was too much going on. This took a bit of time, and I couldn’t help thinking that this wasn’t worth the effort they were putting into it.

With the stage cleared of people, Juliet appeared on the top of the box for “gallop apace…”, which was fine. The nurse arrived carrying the rope ladder, and Juliet came down to meet her. I felt the impact of this scene was a bit lost in the vastness of that stage, and I didn’t get a strong sense of Juliet’s change of heart, from briefly hating Romeo for killing her cousin to realising that her cousin had wanted to kill her husband. There were some chuckles at the nurse’s grief, and I did feel that we needed some more indication of a relationship between her and Tybalt, before the latter’s death, to underpin the nurse’s response.

During Juliet’s initial rage at Romeo, she gathered some of the roses and threw them at the box, with one flower breaking into petals as it hit the side. Juliet sent the nurse off to find Romeo, and then took one of the candles with her when she exited, leaving the clean-up crew to remove the rest of the flowers: the candles were mostly still in place. This was another clunky changeover, and I was beginning to lose interest now – will the interval never come?

With the box turned round again and the greenery showing at the back, we had to sit through another long, rather dull scene in which the nurse had little to do, sadly. Various thoughts went through my head, as often happens when the activity on stage isn’t keeping my attention. It occurred to me that the newest fashion of theatrical production tends to be more stylised than before: for years, the trend was towards realism, as if that could fend off the threat from TV and films. Nowadays, the preference seems to be for slightly surreal, abstract productions and designs. I don’t know whether that’s because of the influx of more European directors (e.g. Maria Aberg, Ivo van Hove) or if it’s simply making it easier for these directors to find work over here. Either way, it’s an interesting change, though from my perspective I’d prefer more productions to be grounded in the text and not in the director’s whim.

Oh heavens, the interval has arrived. What a relief! Steve commented that this production was clearly designed to appeal to young people, and we both wished they’d actually done a Young Persons’ version of the play, as they’re usually more challenging and lively than tonight’s offering. While we chatted, the stage was cleared of the extraneous ‘stuff’. The wheeled stairs were brought on at the right side to assist Romeo and Juliet to climb onto the box roof, shortly before the restart.

The whole place was in darkness (apart from the phone screen glowing brightly a few seats away). Capulet was having a strop about the situation. He tended to lean forward sharply to emphasise some words, as if he felt so strongly his body just had to bend double, which seemed peculiar. He made the usual rash promise to Paris, that the wedding would go ahead, and all the time Romeo and Juliet were lying on the bed on top of the box, behind him, consummating their marriage. Oops.

Before Capulet had finished talking with Paris, Romeo snuck out of bed – didn’t want to wake her, bless – and began putting on his trousers. Lady Capulet stalked off at the end of the scene below, clearly not happy about something, but I’m not sure what. A sleepy Juliet joined Romeo, and their scene started with birds tweeting and the light rising behind them as they cuddled on the bed. I have insufficient knowledge of birdsong to tell if it was, indeed, “the lark, the herald of the morn, no nightingale” – no doubt the sound department did the necessary checks beforehand.

Their scene was OK, and again I thought Juliet was the better of the two. Lady Capulet took her shoes off before going up to Juliet’s room – the stairs, which had been removed, were brought back on – and she was at the bottom of them when Romeo was leaving, just in the nick of time. I didn’t get such a strong sense of Juliet’s cleverness in her use of language to convince her mother that she hated Romeo, when all the time she was keen to protect him. Juliet’s hissy fit at hearing of her impending marriage consisted of throwing the pillow and duvet off the box, and when Capulet arrived down below, she ran down and hugged him, apparently unwilling to believe that her father would do such a terrible thing to her. His own temper tantrum was much more formidable than hers, including hitting her to the ground, and again he indulged in some choppy delivery and bending over which made his head almost bang the ground at times.

Friar Laurence was dealing with Paris when Juliet arrived. Paris was excited to see her, and gave her an appropriate kiss on the cheek before leaving. Her “o, shut the door” immediately following Paris’ departure got a laugh. The Friar had the vial of poison hanging on a chain round his neck: he took it off to give it to her. She had thrown down the knife to take the vial, but picked it up again as she left.

After her return home and a profuse apology, which delighted her father, she went to her room – chair plus duvet towards the back, no bed. She took the knife from her jacket pocket and placed it on the floor before having a short debate about the wisdom of drinking a potion given to her by a relative stranger. As she talked of Tybalt’s body, the character himself, with a red wound on his chest, came up onto the roof of the box and stood there, looking at her as she drank the potion. It didn’t work immediately, and Juliet became frustrated at the delay – oh, must have been several seconds at least. She was heading towards the knife (plan B) just as the first wave of numbness hit her, and she stumbled on her way back to the chair. She managed to collapse onto it just in time, and Tybalt left the box as she fell asleep.

Capulet was putting on his clothes and chivvying everyone else up while his wife was still in her pyjamas. The nurse, in her wedding outfit, came in to rouse Juliet, and her distress at finding her dead was moving. I think either Lady Capulet or the Friar removed the knife, but the Friar certainly palmed the vial and replaced it round his neck while the rest of the family were seeing to the removal of Juliet’s body.

She was carried over someone’s shoulder onto the box roof and laid down there. More loud, thumping music played in the background, and Romeo came on to the stage to meet Balthazar, the man in a suit with the knife from the first scene. He didn’t waste any time giving Romeo the bad news, and Romeo was soon talking to the apothecary, mainly because when he turned the box round to reveal the inside, she was camped out there with her belongings in bin bags – she seemed to be sleeping rough, so presumably she’d already been evicted from her shop.

With Romeo off to Verona, the box was pushed forward to become “Capel’s monument”. Paris came on with his page (Peter?) to mourn at Juliet’s grave. His page went back off while Paris went up to the roof, allowing a change of lighting to reveal the Friar down below. He received the news that his letter to Romeo hadn’t been delivered, and dashed off just as Romeo came on with Balthazar. Paris came down to deal with this intruder, and his page crept on as well, running off to fetch the watch when things didn’t go so well for Paris.

With Paris lying on the ground, I noticed Tybalt walking on very slowly at the back on the right. Later I realised that Mercutio had also come on at the left, and they both walked at an extremely slow pace round to the front. While this was going on, Romeo had identified Paris, climbed up to see Juliet’s body and went on and on about her (getting bored now). Finally, he drank off his potion and died. Tybalt was level with the front of the box at this point, while Mercutio was only just getting into the same position on this side.

The Friar stumbled onto the stage and went up to the tomb. Juliet woke up as the Friar discovered Romeo’s body – I didn’t see any overlap this time. Mercutio and Tybalt were on the move again, turning to walk slowly to the box and stand by it. With the Friar gone, Juliet partly lifted Romeo up, but she could see it was no use and finally stabbed herself, with both of the dead people looking up at her.

The Prince arrived, along with various other characters, and tonight’s surprise was that Montague had died and his wife,  normally the fragile one, put in an appearance! She climbed to the top of the ladder to view the bodies, and while the Friar gave his explanation of events, Romeo and Juliet also stood up and remained on the box roof to the end. Paris helped Mercutio and Tybalt turn the box round so that it was angled diagonally, and then they, with the deceased Montague, stood with their backs to the box for this final section.

The rest of the cast were on stage somewhere for the ending, including the nurse, and Benvolio came on to the right walkway to deliver the final lines. It had been a long two hours and fifty minutes (including interval), and we were very glad it was over. The youngsters gave the cast an enthusiastic response, while we were more muted. Bits of the performance had been good, but overall this was a fairly bland, underpowered and undercast production so far. It may come on – we shall see.

It’s been hard work writing these notes: when I really like or dislike a performance, it’s easier to get my thoughts down on paper, but I found it hard to record something to which I was largely indifferent. The staging was, on the whole, rather clunky, and I found it difficult to engage with the characters or the story most of the time. Despite knowing the play reasonably well, I felt that some of the characters weren’t clearly identified, and there was no strong sense of place or period to ground the performance. The obvious connection with knife crime in our modern cities was, if anything, banal, but it is interesting to see that, in my notes for an RSC touring production ten years ago, the director, Neil Bartlett, commented that it wasn’t normal for people to carry knives in our society – how things change.

© 2018 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

2 comments on “Romeo and Juliet – April 2018

  1. AC says:

    I agree with you, Sheila. It seems a great shame that the staging was so awkward, and the company largely underwhelming. The delivery is poor and I feel as though, aside from Friar and occasionally Nurse and Juliet, the show tended to look a bit amateur. Do you think that it would have been more suitable for the studio theatre?

    • That’s a good point, Anjna. It may well have played better in the Swan or the Courtyard, with a more relaxed feeling to the space. I’m also concerned that the ensemble as a whole will be weaker this year, so I’ve already revised my expectations of the other plays in the season.

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