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.

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Romeo And Juliet – October 2015

Experience: 9/10

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.

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Romeo And Juliet – March 2015

Experience: 7/10

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.

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Romeo And Juliet – February 2015

Experience: 7/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Polina Kalinina

Company: SATTF

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.

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A Tender Thing – October 2012


By Ben Power

Directed by Helena Kaut-Howson

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Monday 1st October 2012

It’s hard to evaluate this experience, as it’s completely unlike anything else I’ve seen. The topic isn’t new – we saw Abi Morgan’s Lovesong a year ago, which presents a similar story – but this process of taking apart Romeo and Juliet in order to stitch a new garment for an older couple is something I haven’t come across before.

This older couple are still very much in love, and have to face up to mortality when one of them develops a fatal illness. From an opening scene showing us the later stages of the husband’s situation, the play took us through their relationship from years before when the illness hadn’t appeared, moving back to the present and the resolution of their joint suffering. A final coda showed us the original meeting, including the famous sonnet between the two lovers, and then they left the stage for good.

There were many layers to this performance, and both actors – Richard McCabe and Kathryn Hunter – did a splendid job. The set indicated a beach somewhere; pale blue decking covered the stage, fringed with small pockets of sand, seaweed, plants and rocks. A large screen was lowered at the back of the thrust with a similar screen on the back wall which were used for video projections. These mostly consisted of ocean waves but they did use some other pictures, including photos of younger versions of Romeo and Juliet. The videos extended onto the floor of the stage, and they used sound effects too for good measure.

Music also featured strongly, with the couple often dancing; this was how the symptoms first appeared. There was a door to one side and a bed which was initially behind the screen but was brought forward as needed. They also used a wheelchair later on. At the start there were two wooden chairs on stage, one lying on its side near the left front and the other upright on the other side of the stage. A bottle of poison lurked in the sandy patch at the front of the stage. The costumes were contemporary yet old-fashioned, and the overall effect was of a nowhere place away from normal life where the couple could experience their relationship in total isolation.

Apart from a few lines from sonnet 116 – “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments.” – the dialogue appeared to be entirely from Romeo And Juliet, which is amazing. I recognized a number of lines, of course, and could even identify some line-swapping between the two lovers. Names had been changed to protect the integrity of their speeches, but there were still many lines of dialogue which were fresh and new, and I didn’t find the familiar ones at all distracting. There was a fair amount of humour too, especially in the early stages; when Juliet was telling Romeo what not to swear by, she kept putting her hand over his mouth and the expression on his face was hugely entertaining, desperate to assure her of his love and being constantly prevented.

Of course there were sadder moments as well. I found the detail of the illness hard to take at times, and the emphasis on those aspects perhaps unbalanced the play a little; instead of being about love it became more about assisted suicide. But that passed, and once the focus shifted back onto the lovers’ relationship I found my emotions more engaged again.

I did feel the Queen Mab speech was a bit of an intrusion – sort of a ‘greatest hits’ moment – and there may be scope for some other trimming, but on the whole this piece works very well and it’s a joy to hear these lines delivered so clearly by experienced actors. I was surprised to find how often death and aging are referred to in the original, and often by the young folk themselves; those phrases were extremely apt for this retelling. I would be happy to see this again, though not immediately, and I suspect I would get a lot more out of it second time around.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at


Romeo And Juliet – February 2012


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Robert Icke

Company: Headlong

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Friday 24th February 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

Romeo and Juliet – March 2011


By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Rupert Goold

Venue: RST

Date: Wednesday 23rd March 2011

This was a significant improvement on the performance we saw last year. Still deeply flawed, this production has become more balanced, partly by toning down the worst excesses of the early days, but also, sadly, by ‘clowning up’ the main parts to make them fit better with the comedy style. Well, it’s a choice, I suppose.

Firstly, the bits that have gone, or were reduced in some way. The flashes of fire almost completely disappeared, and the video projections were very muted, so we were clearly in Verona this time. Some steam still rose occasionally from the vents, but that was minimal too, and much more effective as a result. The opening fight seemed quicker this time, and Steve reckoned there were fewer knives discarded by Capulet – I wasn’t so sure – although the attempted burning of Benvolio was still included. This time, though, I found it very contrived, as our position round the side meant I could clearly see the people waiting in the wings to bring on the post and rag, etc.

For the party scene, the music was much quieter, and we could actually hear the dialogue between Capulet and Tybalt – hooray! It was well delivered too. After the party, when Mercutio and Benvolio are looking for Romeo, Mercutio’s obscene mime was definitely shorter, even though it was still getting laughs, mainly from the younger members of the audience; I wondered if Jonjo O’Neill was getting a bit bored with it.

The lines about Romeo and rosemary both beginning with an ‘R’ were gone, and I wondered if in fact the time we heard them before was a mistake. Perhaps the lines had been cut, but were accidentally said by whoever, because the conversation ended abruptly without making sense. I was conscious that it must be very hard for actors to constantly chop and change their lines each night, and mistakes are bound to happen from time to time. The winding up of Tybalt had been cut a bit as well, and the fight itself seemed more serious. The golden display which bookends the interval was less over-the-top, and the final scene was almost completely reworked (see below).

Bits that were still much the same included Juliet’s twirly toy, the use of the stools as stepping stones when she heads off to Friar Laurence’s cell, her painful spasms after taking the Friar’s potion, the use of a singing telegram to bring Romeo the news of Juliet’s death, and Lady Capulet running a couple of times around Juliet’s death bed, although this action was presented more clearly as being linked to her call for help, so it seemed more natural this time.

Fresh disasters included a Benvolio who appeared to be auditioning for the role of Igor in a remake of Young Frankenstein – his gurning and manic prowling were completely inappropriate. Romeo also took to making strange prancing movements during the balcony scene, which upped the humour quotient a bit, but lowered the believability of the lovers. In fact, I didn’t buy these two as lovers at all this time round, snogging notwithstanding, mainly because Juliet saw Romeo a few times during the dance and ignored him, then suddenly she’s desperate to kiss him just because he grabbed her by the hand? I don’t think so.

I also had a fit of the (silent-ish) giggles early on. We’d had a talk from Dr Penelope Freedman this afternoon in which she’d commented on the variety of accents, so I was more attuned to them tonight. When Del Boy Montague opened his mouth, I had this vision of some barrow boy who’d built up his retail empire from nothing, was given a title, married a bit of posh, and was now one of Verona’s gentry. At least it kept me amused.

Last time, Steve had noticed Tybalt and Lady Capulet having a kiss during the party scene. This time, they were really going at it, apparently (he didn’t give me a nudge so I could check it out for myself – I was watching the rest of the action). This certainly explained Lady Capulet’s grief at Tybalt’s death, and her intense desire for revenge, but as it’s not textually based, and adds nothing to the main story, I couldn’t see the point of it, although it was well enough acted. I suppose it did underline the fact that arranged marriages aren’t necessarily happy ones -do we need a reminder? – and for a few moments I also toyed with the idea that perhaps Juliet was Tybalt’s child instead of Capulet’s, but that seemed unlikely.

Another thing that didn’t work for me was the attempt to blend so many styles, specifically the reality-based modern dress parts and the Elizabethan costume stylised, bordering on surreal, bits. For example, Juliet’s toy-twirling while her mother’s talking to her about marriage is very in-your-face reality, but her mother has asked the nurse to leave to have some privacy with her daughter, yet she has three or four women dressing her at that point. OK, she recalls the nurse, but the discrepancy jarred a bit, though not as much as the fact that Lady Capulet appears to be getting herself done up as an extra from Gormenghast.

The variety of approaches with Juliet’s performance also troubled me a lot. Portraying her as a little girl one minute, then a randy teenager the next, then a sensible young woman who understands a great deal about life….. I know girls and boys of that age can fluctuate between child and adult as they mature, but this was too much to be believable. It didn’t feel like considered character development so much as a pick’n’mix of performances to suit the needs of the moment. However, Mariah Gale delivered the dialogue better than most, which got me through most of her scenes. Only the pre-potion scene jarred, as she recounted the terrible things that might happen as if she were a child happily going over all the really cool gruesome bits of a frog dissection, rather than a young woman who’s facing some potential horrors, and screwing her courage “to the sticking point”.

So what did work better this time around? Well, Capulet in particular was played much more seriously, and the scene where Juliet refuses to marry Paris was considerably more powerful as a result. I could feel Capulet’s anger, and the threat to Juliet was very real. While the balcony scene suffered from Romeo’s extra clowning, the overlaid scenes between Juliet and the nurse, and Romeo and the Friar, worked very well this time. I was actually starting to get emotionally involved, though of course it was a bit late by this time. I particularly liked the way Romeo stood up for himself and pointed out to the Friar that he couldn’t know how Romeo felt because he wasn’t in Romeo’s situation, and since the Friar was presumably celibate (not guaranteed, I know), it’s a reasonable argument, even if Romeo was making it in the heat of passion.

When the family discover Juliet dead, as they think, I was aware of how much suffering they’re going through, and it crossed my mind that the Friar was doing more harm than good in more ways than one. I also felt that the reason for Friar John  being delayed actually seemed quite plausible this time, given that plague of various sorts did the rounds from time to time all over Europe and beyond.

But I think the greatest improvement was in the ending. As we watched the beginning of the play, with ‘Romeo’ appearing to run into the church/cathedral as if escaping something, and the hint of a siren in the background(?), I felt as if he was coming straight from the tomb scene, a modern person caught in some time-warp loop and doomed to repeat the same tragic story over and over again. However, the revised final scene added a new dimension to that. Instead of the mix of costumes as before, the live characters, Friar Laurence excepted, are all in modern dress, and after Friar Laurence’s explanation of the situation, and a few of the Duke’s lines, the actor who played Balthazar enters, in similar clothes to ‘Romeo’ at the start, wearing headphones, and hearing the audio guide in the Italian accent reciting the closing lines. Spooky. A much shorter ending, removing even more than the previous cuts, but tying it all up much better, and lifting the production considerably further out of the mire. Steve also felt it suggested that the underlying problems of the story are with us still in the present, and are not just historical. He could see the original ‘Romeo’ as a contemporary person who was actually banished, and this was him escaping to the quiet of a church, then getting caught up in a historical version of the same love tragedy, but with the final scene reverting to the present day, hence the modern dress for the other characters. Interesting idea

So not such a bad experience as before, and although it was too patchy for me to enthuse about it, we both enjoyed ourselves much more than we anticipated. It’s also a good reminder of how much a production can change over time, and particularly with Rupert Goold, who to his credit is willing not only to take risks with his productions, but to change and refine them when needed.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at

Romeo And Juliet – March 2010 (2)


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Michael Fentiman

Company: RSC Understudies

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Tuesday 30th March 2010

This was much better than yesterday, with less of the excessive comic business, and some very good performances from this permutation of the ensemble.

The introduction by Michael Fentiman was a stumbling effort – he was clearly nervous – but he still managed to make us laugh a few times. The initial staging for the prologue was the same, but Romeo took some time to get his headphones untangled, so there were fewer pictures taken of the inside of whatever building we were in. Capulet, Montague and the Prince were all much better today, with more gravitas, and the scene where Juliet defies her father was very strongly acted. But Mercutio showed the greatest improvement, and not only increased our enjoyment of the performance, but also cut the running time by ten minutes by not doing all the unnecessary stuff we saw last night.

As it was the understudies’ run, Mrs Montague wasn’t in the final scene tonight, but her death was still not announced. Balthasar spoke the closing two couplets, and the second song he sang was as the friar heads down to the crypt. The Romeo/rosemary lines were missing today, as was almost all of Mercutio’s miming – hooray. This Mercutio was much better, clear and lively and intelligent. I was sorry to see him go this time, but there was a lot more blood and he was clearly wounded. Romeo was just as good (Peter from yesterday), and the Friar was also pretty good.

There was a lot of coughing in the second half. I’d noticed this last night, and where we were sitting today I found out why. All the smoke from the nurse’s pipe and Lady Capulet’s cigarettes drifted over our way, and I felt my throat tickle a few times. Juliet was less sulky today, twirling her toy thingy for fun, because she’s still a child, although this interpretation doesn’t fit so well with her clever sharing of the sonnet form with Romeo.

For the potion scene, Juliet wasn’t writhing around in pain this time, she just moved a little bit and then lay still. Her reactions weren’t so ludicrous during the death scene either. Lady Capulet didn’t do her keep fit routine at all today – hooray! We could see better today from this position – consider for future. The hip-hop references by Romeo and Juliet were dropped. I was more aware of Paris’s plight, poor man, in love but doomed to failure. Steve spotted that, during the party when Lady Capulet leaves the upper level, she went past Tybalt and kissed him – something you want to tell us, m’Lady? Steve reckoned she may have been closer to Tybalt than anyone’s ever suggested before.

During the confrontation between Mercutio and Tybalt, Mercutio used the bicycle pump to ‘inflate’ first one finger, then a second. Just as crude as yesterday, perhaps, but much funnier. After he bent Tybalt’s sword, he used it as a fishing rod today, instead of playing cricket. Romeo rode around the stage in circles when he first visited Friar Laurence, who stopped him with a hand on the handlebars when he guessed, correctly, that Romeo hasn’t been to bed. Romeo siad ‘nope’ when the friar guessed he was up early, and when he told the friar that he wanted him to conduct the marriage ceremony between himself and Juliet, he did an imaginary drum roll before saying ‘today’.

When Capulet was first speaking to Paris, there were various sellers walking around with boxes on their heads – fruit, flowers, that sort of thing – and Paris selected a bunch of flowers from one of them.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at

Romeo And Juliet – March 2010 (1)

Experience: 3/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Rupert Goold

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Monday 29th March 2010

This was an interesting experience. Steve and I have seen so many Shakespeare productions that we can no longer hope for that wonderful experience of seeing a play of his for the first time (Cardenio excepted, possibly). Tonight, however, we were treated to a rare thing, a performance of the RSC’s production of The Comedy of Romeo and Juliet. It’s possible of course that Rupert Goold was simply trying to stage that well known, but sadly lost piece, Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter, but with no extant text had to base it on the closely related Romeo and Juliet with which many of us are familiar, and simply add as much comedy as he could. Or, of course, he was trying to do the Romeo and Juliet, but chose to go for every cheap laugh available, leading to a diminished sense of the tragedy (what am I saying, diminished? The only tragedy was that the performance lasted three hours and twenty minutes, about three hours and ten minutes too long!), and establishing such a comedic perspective that I was seeing jokes all the way through, and doing my best not to laugh out loud at them. (Didn’t quite manage that – sorry.)

Let me give an example. When Juliet’s ‘body’ was discovered, the nurse was so upset she just stood still. Lady Capulet, on the other hand, after the first shock, apparently remembered that she hadn’t done her daily workout yet, and ran round the stage for several laps before collapsing in a heap. Steve reckoned she was training for the marathon, though on this evidence she wouldn’t make it to the first refreshment point. I found myself thinking that the RSC might be going in for a new form of Shakespeare-related merchandising – the Lady Capulet fitness DVD, perhaps?

And another one: when the modern-dress police turned up at the tomb to investigate the multiple homicide, complete with walkie-talkies and apparently unfazed by the fact that most of the suspects, and indeed the victims, were in Elizabethan fancy dress, I fully expected a forensics team to walk on set and start taking photos, look for blood spatter, etc.

And that wouldn’t have been out of keeping with this production. The opening request for the audience to turn off, not shoot, not record, etc, was made by Noma Dumezweni, dressed in a suit and using a Caribbean accent. The set, as far as I could see at this point, consisted of some gates at the back of the thrust, some kind of opening above, and an ironwork window pattern in the centre of the stage, courtesy of a single light. The use of church music beforehand set the scene very well, and it became clear after Noma’s announcement that she was a guide in some cathedral or other. When Sam Troughton arrived in his modern clothes, including a hoodie, and carrying a camera, she gave him a headphone set for the audio tour. He had to fiddle with it a bit to get the English version, and then that was how the prologue was given. Neat. After he wandered off to explore more of the building, the actors for the first scene arrived, and went straight into the thumb-biting scenario (Samson and Gregory didn’t get a chance to puzzle us all at the start with their dextrous word-play around the word ‘choler’). The fight soon escalated, and Benvolio, doing his best to stop it all, ended up tied to a stake in the middle of the stage with a cloth stuffed in his mouth. Tybalt was about to set it on fire (eugh! Just how nasty do you have to be to get the point across?) when the principals in this conflict turned up. Sadly, this didn’t help, since they pitched in as well, and even the Ladies got into a cat fight (a pretty pathetic one, mind you). When the Duke finally got there, we went from truly nasty to comedy, as the clatter of weapons being dropped on his command goes on, and on, and on. Capulet in particular never left the house without a good dozen knives secreted about his person. Sitting down must be a precarious thing to do – he could easily stab himself in the groin.

This humour was OK, but already it was undercutting the seriousness of the situation; it was hard to tell whether the warring families are in Apocalypse Now or Love Thy Neighbour. [After the understudies performance, I realised that the attempt to fry Benvolio happened after Montague and Capulet joined in, and some petrol was poured over Benvolio first from a can. Also Tybalt had previously lit a match and thrown it down on the grill in the centre, causing a huge flame to flare up.]

With the factions sent packing, and only the Montagues left on stage, the next bit of dialogue was badly delivered – I know roughly what they’re saying, but tonight it just didn’t come across. Once Romeo arrived, the delivery improved, but sadly Benvolio was being played as a buffoon, and again this weakened the performance. In fact, just about every character was played as a buffoon, the lovers and possibly Paris and the friar excepted, which boosted the comedy alright, but…..well, I think my views on this point are already well established.

Sam Troughton’s Romeo still had the camera, and it was put to good use in this scene, with Romeo showing Benvolio the picture of his love (Rosaline) on the screen, and Benvolio using the camera to take a picture of a woman in the audience to show Romeo that his love wasn’t the only beauty around. This bit of humour also worked well, with Romeo holding out his hand in apology to the audience lady when he compared her unfavourably to his love.

There was a good deal of overlapping of scenes in this production – it’s a tried and tested method for speeding things up, and can provide some interesting juxtapositions – and I think this may have happened when Capulet arrived on stage for his next scene before Romeo and Benvolio have left. Played by Richard Katz, Capulet is another weak interpretation (I blame the director), played more for comedy than gravitas. Peter was sitting on the steps which were pushed through the gates, and the humour of his performance when he was given the task of inviting the guests to Capulet’s party was entirely appropriate and very well done. His cringing attempt to get noticed by Romeo and Benvolio was very funny, as was Romeo’s blatant reaction to seeing the name ‘Rosaline’ on the guest-list. When Peter mentioned the name Montague, he hawked and spat superbly, so no prizes for guessing where his loyalties lay.

After they left, Lady Capulet appeared at the upper balcony, with several makeup artists whose help she evidently needs. Her hair was a mess, she was only partly dressed, and to be frank, she wasn’t looking her best. As they got to work, the nurse below summoned Juliet, who came on carrying something strange, a three foot long piece of rope with a light at the end – some new-fangled toy, I expect. She started twirling this around, casually at first, but with increasing vigour as the conversation went in directions she found unpleasant, and even raised it above her head when things got really bad and marriage was mentioned. As a way of showing her inner sulky brat, it worked quite well, though it was a bit distracting, and meant she never showed us her relationship with her nurse which usually gets its first outing in this scene. Noma did her best with the nurse’s part, but against the whirling she was a bit low-key. Also, I wondered if she’d been smoking the old wacky-baccy in her pipe, as her manner suggested a relaxed calm not entirely at odds with such a practice. But there was no other indication, so perhaps I just made it up. By the end of the scene, Lady Capulet was looking much better, and that’s about all I can remember from that bit.

The next scene brought on Mercutio for the first time, with the challenge of the Queen Mab speech. We both like Jonjo O’Neill, and have seen him give any number of good performances, so we don’t mean it unkindly when we say that we were both heartily glad to see the back of this Mercutio. His going, normally a cause for grief, was a real blessing tonight. He wasn’t too bad in this scene, admittedly, although the policy of encouraging some of the actors to exaggerate their natural accents, presumably for comic effect, can lead to many of the lines being unintelligible, and so it was with Mercutio. I did get his point that dreams are nothing, mere fantasy, so the speech wasn’t completely wasted.

And now for the party. Forget the dialogue, this was all about the dancing and music, of which we got plenty. So much so, that most of Capulet’s lines were lost, though the way he held a dagger to Tybalt’s throat conveyed his point well enough. I found myself wondering if there were film influences here that I wasn’t aware of – Romeo + Juliet, perhaps. I definitely had the feeling that I was missing something.

Only Romeo and Juliet themselves were allowed space and silence in this scene to deliver their dialogue, which they did very well, and at this point I had high hopes that this production might work out fine. Juliet had seen Romeo a couple of times during the dancing and shown no interest in him that I could see, so it was a bit of a surprise that she suddenly got into kissing mode with him, but that’s young love for you. They both showed clear reactions to finding out who the other was, and we were set up nicely for their balcony scene.

Unfortunately we had to put up with Mercutio and Benvolio again for a bit. With Mercutio having so few lines, this part usually doesn’t take long, but tonight we were ‘treated’ to as unnecessary a chunk of ‘comic’ business as you could wish not to see. For some reason, Mercutio had to emphasise that he was talking about Romeo screwing his love – at this time they still think it’s Rosaline he’s in love with. Starting with hand gestures, he went from a finger-fuck to an arm, then his whole body climbed inside – much laughter from the younger section of the audience – then there was a surreal sequence where he appeared to be having a cup of tea in the party in her uterus, then he kissed somebody (was he meant to be a sperm that’s come into contact with an egg?), and that scared him so much he ran back out of the vagina, falling flat on the floor from a fart, whether vaginal or anal I couldn’t say. One or two bits of this were mildly funny, but it went on far too long for us.

Fortunately, the scene between Romeo and Juliet was clear and uncluttered by this inappropriate and over-fussy business. Juliet appeared at the upper level, simply standing or sitting with her legs dangling over the edge. Romeo started at the stairs at the front of the stage, then moved around a bit, finally climbing the trellis to claim his snog. In fact, they might have had the wedding night a day early, the way these two were carrying on, but Juliet is a good girl, and pushed him away. This was very well done, and was starting to get me involved, and if they can build on these bits and drop the rubbish encrusting the play, they might do very well. We can only hope.

The next scene introduced Friar Laurence, and Forbes Masson did a perfectly acceptable job with the meddling friar. I did think his displays of temper were a bit out of kilter with his words of moderation, but not enough to give me a problem. Romeo’s change of attitude was remarkable. He arrived on a bicycle, and was full of enthusiasm. Friar Laurence was initially concerned to hear that Rosaline was, like, so yesterday’s news. He even slapped Romeo’s face where he could still see the tear stain, while Romeo’s blank reaction when the Friar mentioned Rosaline’s name was perfect. But after some time to think, the Friar saw the possibilities in the marriage between the feuding families, and agreed to help them out.

Next Mercutio and Benvolio waited for Romeo, and the only thing I got from the dialogue was that Mercutio seemed to be criticising Tybalt, and perhaps others, for faults that were more part of his character than anyone else’s, as of course he does later when he accuses Benvolio of being quarrelsome. When Romeo cycled in, he sparred with Mercutio in a much livelier way, not that I could follow half of it, but it’s clear that he’s back to the Romeo of old, full of wit and spirit. The nurse turned up with Peter, and again the sexual innuendo of Mercutio’s insults to her are emphasised, with him calling her a whore many times over. She was wonderfully funny in her non-delivery of Juliet’s message, and in her readiness to dash off as soon as Romeo has told her he protests. Strangely, some lines that are often included seemed to be dropped, while lines I haven’t heard before, about Romeo and rosemary both starting with the letter ‘R’, were included. God knows why, as I couldn’t see what they were getting at, and the nurse simply pulled out of that conversation and leaves. Bizarre.

For the Nurse’s return to Juliet, there was a platform that raised up in the centre of the stage, similar to the one used in King Lear. It may have been raised earlier, but I specifically remember it in this scene. [Certainly used during party scene, possibly earlier.] Juliet had been waiting impatiently, and her frustration was very clear. When the nurse did arrive, there was the usual bickering as Juliet pushed to get what she wanted, and the nurse took her time to get what she wanted – in this case, a back rub – before divulging her news. There was a nice bit where Juliet started rubbing one side of her back, and the nurse said, ‘other side’ – it gave us a chuckle. The timing of her abrupt change of subject – “where’s your mother” – was very good. Then we were off to Friar Laurence’s cell for the wedding – a short scene, with nothing to comment on.

Now we come to the point where I found the funny side too much for me. It’s the scene where Mercutio and Benvolio encounter Tybalt, get into a fight, and Romeo, in trying to part them, gets Mercutio killed (hooray!). The stairs were forward again, and the platform was raised. The fight between Mercutio and Tybalt was OK, with Mercutio at first threatening him with the bicycle pump (cue for some more sexual innuendo from the pumping action), and then snatching Tybalt’s sword, after which the whole thing escalated until Tybalt, in the final clinch, used his concealed blade, Wolverine-like, to stab Mercutio in the guts. All fine and good, but I was distracted by the sudden bursts of smoke and fire that belched up every so often from vents in the floor and platform. There had also been flame effects projected onto the screens either side of the gates from the first fight scene onwards – these gave the impression that Verona was already ablaze, similar to the Julius Caesar that I was so very unfond of last year. Now, however, I was struck with the thought that this Verona was actually built on Vesuvius, and the constant mini-eruptions were due to that. I found it hard not to giggle, so I did, silently, but from now on my sense of humour was going full blast, and I saw so much to laugh at that I couldn’t take anything seriously again.

During the fighting, Mercutio handed Tybalt the bicycle pump and took Tybalt’s sword. When Tybalt thumped him in the stomach with the pump, Mercutio bent Tybalt’s sword over to a right angle, and then used it to play cricket. Mercutio’s final speech was delivered in as perky as fashion as I can remember from a dying man, while Romeo tried to strangle Tybalt at first, then turned his own blade on him. Benvolio’s clownish nature made his recounting of the fight seem feeble and petty, and so the prince’s concern, and the threat to the families, was again undercut.

The scene between Juliet and the nurse where Juliet discovered what has happened to Tybalt and Romeo, was excellent, with Mariah Gale’s reactions just perfect, and the nurse suitably deadened by the loss. This scene was intercut with the next, where Romeo and the Friar argued over whether banishment was good news or bad. The plus point here was that it got things over quicker, and the nurse could leave from one scene, then reappear quite quickly in the next, linking them together effectively. The down side was that each scene had to have long pauses in it to allow the other scene to continue. As Steve said, if they hadn’t mucked around so much with the rest of the play, this intercutting might have been effective, but as it was, it came across as simply part of the muddle. I quite liked it, but I take his point. I did notice yet again how Juliet talked herself out of despair, but Romeo needed the Friar’s help to stop him killing himself.

Now by this time, I was looking at my watch quite regularly, as I wanted a break, and time was passing, but we still had a little bit to go. Capulet talking with Paris got the expected laugh when he decided Wednesday is too soon, so the wedding will have to be on…..Thursday. Then we saw Romeo climb the balcony to meet his new wife; they kissed and started stripping each other off. The music swelled, the lights went out and it’s the interval. Fairly innocuous, you might think. Well it would have been, but for the high camp use of rays of gold streaming out from the upper level like a sunburst. Totally over the top, and hugely funny. I do hope that was the intention, but I suspect it wasn’t.

We were now two-thirds of the way through, so at least the final part would be quick. After comparing notes, and finding we were of one mind about the production so far, we braced ourselves for the final stint, and although there was much to laugh at, it was also this part that decided me (and Steve) on the three star rating. It was dire. From the still camp sunburst of the opening scene, where Juliet was reluctant to say goodbye, to the final body count at the cemetery, this performance mostly didn’t get past the comic atmosphere it had set up, and when it did, it was just plain boring.

The scene where Lady Capulet breaks the news to Juliet of her arranged marriage was done over breakfast (on the platform). Juliet’s sudden strength of character was fine, as were the rest of the family’s reactions, though I noticed Capulet had a tendency to crush fruit at every opportunity – he’d done it earlier before giving Peter the list of guests. Juliet’s decision to deceive the nurse was swift and unheralded, but fine, and for some strange reason, when the servants were clearing the stools, they held them in a line diagonally from the corner of the platform, so that Juliet could stride along them as she left the stage, with the servants whisking them off immediately afterwards – why?

The scene between Paris, the friar and Juliet was well done, though with her hoodie, the knife she draws on the friar and her agitated manner, she looks like she’s mugging him to get his spiritual counsel, something else that made me chuckle internally. The scene on Juliet’s return to her father and mother was equally OK. I was starting to lose the will to listen by this time, though. Also, I couldn’t stop smiling, and that’s not really the attitude that goes with this play, certainly not at this stage. Juliet’s final thoughts before drinking the potion were OK, and Tybalt’s ghost appeared just before she downed it, carrying a cloth folded across his arms. He placed it at the head of the platform/bed and left. Once Juliet had drunk the potion, she lay down, and started writhing about in some pain – why? It’s a sleeping draught, for heaven’s sake. The other characters whirled about, saying lines which presumably come from the play, until eventually, with Juliet almost in her death-like state, the nurse came in to wake her.

I’ve already commented on the reactions to Juliet’s death – at least seeing the funny side helped to pass the time. I was not only glad that Mercutio died this time around, I was now keen to see the lovers get it as well. I was very aware that the friar gives his instructions about Juliet’s ‘body’ so that his plan will work properly – not such a bungler as often appears, this one. Juliet’s body got up and walked off by itself – her father picked up the folded cloth to represent carrying her away, which worked quite well. No chance the musicians would get a look in, though.

Then it was Romeo in Mantua. Balthasar arrived, and for no reason I could see, sang part of his message to Romeo, attempting a falsetto delivery which didn’t quite come off tonight. This scene was staged with Balthasar on the upper level, and Romeo on the lower, facing forward. Not my favourite way of doing it, and the singing didn’t help either. The apothecary wasn’t as poor as some – dressed in modern clothes, he can apparently afford an iPod, so he must be doing something right.

The bad news came to Friar Laurence and he headed off to the vault, which was formed with the stairs forward and the platform raised. Juliet was carried in by several men and placed on the platform, still in her Elizabethan-style wedding dress. Paris came and went, Romeo kissed Juliet before he took the poison, and one nice touch here was that after the kiss he turned his back on her, and so missed her first stirrings from her sleep; one of those ‘if only’ moments. Pity I just didn’t care by then. He put the poison in a bottle of water and drank it off, crushing the bottle as he did so, which meant there was a plastic bottle knocking around for the remainder of the play, not that’s there’s long to go, thank goodness.

When Juliet woke up and discovered her husband dead beside her, she let out some weird and wonderful cries which made me think, it’s too late to fake an orgasm now, dear. The stabbing was OK, but again her screams were funny rather than moving. I’ve described the final stages already, and both Steve and I noticed there were major cuts in this section, including the bit about Lady Montague being dead. Just as well, as she was standing there large as life, a most unusual occurrence. Balthasar again attempted a song sometime during the final bit, but again the falsetto was too much and he finished it at regular pitch. We still have no idea why he was doing this. With no sign of a monument to the lovers, the final nail was put in the coffin of this play, as the star-crossed nature of the lovers became completely irrelevant. Minor players in a soap opera world. If ever a production could have presented the Nicholas Nickleby version of the Romeo and Juliet ending, this was it – that thought kept me giggling through much of the final part, and to be honest, using that ending would have improved my enjoyment enormously.

There were enough signs here of some good ideas and good performances, but a lot of work needs to be done to strip out the non-essentials and change the whole nature of the production. There were even some hip-hop/rapping references by Romeo and Juliet that felt really out of place. Unfortunately, a lot of folk at tonight’s performance loved it, so there won’t be much pressure for change for a while, even though a few folk left at the interval. We’re both intending to use our next appointments with this production to simply see how it develops, although the understudy run tomorrow obviously won’t have much time. Hopefully the understudies won’t be so extreme either. Wait and see.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at

Romeo And Juliet – December 2008

Experience: 6/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Neil Bartlett

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Wednesday 3rd December 2008

We attended a director’s talk before the show which was very illuminating. He was very emphatic that this play is not about a clash of different cultures. The “two households, both alike in dignity” were very similar families, and with similar attitudes. They set out to show this quite deliberately. Casting a black actress as Juliet was accidental in that sense – he went for the best actress to get the qualities he wanted and it just so happened she was black, but he hadn’t noticed until someone asked him about it.

This Lady Capulet is very unhappy, and apparently we will see that in this production. Capulet has three opportunities to go to bed with her, and avoids all of them. That’s the reason Romeo and Juliet get on so well so quickly – both come from identical circumstances, so they’re in sync from the word go. We were told to watch when each child is with their parents – they don’t speak to their parents much, if at all. Both are only children, and both carry the full weight of family and society’s expectations.

Shakespeare tells us twice that Juliet is thirteen (which may have been Susannah’s age) – why does he do this? Neil reckons she’s at an age where her parents need to do something about her before she grows old enough to make up her own mind.

He was asked about the choice of setting, and he thinks the play needs to be set in Italy. It’s a country ruled by religion, with a very conservative society. The time is the 1940s, but not a specific year. All the women are very sexy, helped by the costumes, which appear demure but are actually very sexy.

In the original story, the priest is forgiven, while the nurse is hung (‘twas ever thus, he murmured). However, he pointed out that this priest is not very upright; he does a lot of lying, as do the others of course. He wanted to get across a society in which violence was a “normal” part of society, where young men hung around on street corners looking for a fight. In our culture, carrying a knife is weird. In Verona, knives are normal. The violence is technically illegal, but happens a lot because everyone is keen on it. Problems only occur when it goes wrong. It’s a macho culture where men expect to fight each other and treat women as possessions. The characters think that violence is sexy, but the director doesn’t.

The language was mentioned. He said any Renaissance text has language difficulties, and this is not a naturalistic drama.  The casting of the two leads was intuitive. They have to have good technical skills, as the parts are vocally demanding, and to get across the idea of two sexually inexperienced young people.

Asked about the connection between love and death, he said he wasn’t conscious of it. He let things come out, and audience can decide for themselves.

Were there tragic flaws in the lead characters, or was the tragedy due to the other characters? Not in the characters themselves, but there are structural problems in the families and religious ideologies. Basically, there was no place for these young people in Verona.

He told us the story of how one marketing chap had asked him if the play had any sex or violence! Have you read the play? was about the only response he could think of.

Now for the play itself. It wasn’t a full house tonight, though there were plenty of school parties.

The whole production was very gray, white and black. I had some problems distinguishing the characters at first because of this, though fortunately I knew what the leads looked like, and knowing the play as well as we do we could work it out pretty quickly. The set consisted of a black wooden floor, with a back wall that was part rough brickwork, part smooth buttresses. For the final scene, the side sections were swung round to form part of the side walls of the tomb, while the central panel rose up to create a high doorway, through which Juliet’s bed, surrounded by a railing, was wheeled onto the stage. For the balcony scene, there was no balcony, which was interesting. Instead Juliet’s bed, with high brass header and footer, was placed centre stage and the rest was up to our imaginations. Good call.

The opening chorus was done using most of the company, and when it was over they took to the chairs at the back to wait for their turn in the fight. I often like this approach, and it was OK here, but it was only used this once so didn’t really add to the production overall. For some reason, the servants who start it all had a radio with them, and turned it on and off. The asides were done with the rest of the action frozen, and sometimes an actor would snap their fingers to get things going again, but here it seemed to be the radio that did that function. With the fight well underway, a telephone was used to summon Capulet and Montague to the fray. The women joined in the fighting, which is clearly a widespread pastime, enjoyed by much of society.

I was very aware that Mr. and Mrs. Capulet have spent very little time with their daughter. The nurse’s comment about them being in Mantua when Juliet was weaned really brought that home. The nurse (Julie Legrand) was very good, the best performance along with Romeo (David Dawson). Juliet (Anneika Rose) was also pretty good – a bit weaker vocally, but she got her emotions across reasonably well. The nurse was especially good when she delivered the news about Tybalt’s death and Romeo’s subsequent banishment. For once, it was clear that it wasn’t clear; that the way the nurse was telling it, it was natural that Juliet would misunderstand at first.

A microphone was used during the party scene – why? It didn’t add anything and was cumbersome to bring on and off, though the photography session with all the guests lined up for a group photo was OK. It allowed Romeo and Juliet to have a few minutes alone together, out of time.

We got the second prologue which is almost always cut – I’m not actually sure if I’ve ever seen it before – and was between the end of the party and Mercutio and Benvolio’s attempts to find Romeo. This time it consisted of the spare women removing the chairs and bringing on Juliet’s bed, and giving us the prologue as they did so. I’m not sure it helped the play particularly, but then it was so novel I would need time to get used to it. We were warned it would be done tonight; I just didn’t know where it came.

During Juliet’s scene before her second wedding – the potion scene – both Steve and I thought she’d taken the stuff before she went through all the possible ways it could go wrong, so I put some of her emotional state down to the fact that she’d already taken an irrevocable step, and possibly even to the effects of the draught itself. However, she then drank it off again in the usual place, so either she had two healthy swigs from a small bottle, or she didn’t actually go the distance the first time round. This could be made clearer.

When she talked about all the ghosts she might encounter when she wakes up in the tomb, various cast members drifted onto the stage, including Tybalt. When this had happened before, during the post-nuptials scene, I found it distracting. The extras were required to help Romeo leap from Juliet’s bed to the ground below and then to remove the bed, but I found it intrusive and clumsy to have them there. This time, although I found it intrusive to begin with, once I realised that they represented the family ghosts in the vault, it worked well for me.

We also got the musicians in full tonight, and at the end of that bit one of the musicians lingered behind to become Balthazar and deliver the bad news to Romeo. With the understudy playing Tybalt as well as his usual role of the apothecary, we had the interesting sight of the murdered man reappearing at the back of the stage, blood still evident on his shirt, putting on the apothecary’s white coat to sell his killer the poison that will exact his revenge. It was a nice touch, and a fortuitous one. For the first time ever that I’ve seen, Lady Montague was present for the final scene in the tomb – this avoids an unnecessary distraction, I feel – and I realised tonight that the friar’s recapitulation of the story was essential, not for the audience, assuming we’ve been awake and paying attention, but for its effect on the people there in the tomb.

At the end, I wasn’t sure how genuine the reconciliation between Capulet and Montague would be. With such a negative take on this society, such a “positive” outcome seemed a little perverse, and I could even see the possibility of both men rejecting the idea and continuing the feud. I was also aware that these two noble houses hadn’t just lost two of their children, they’d lost their entire future, as neither family had an heir. So any reconciliation, however genuine, would be hollow. However, as the two men hugged in joint commiseration, I was reminded of Leontes and Polixenes in A Winter’s Tale, and it seemed fitting that these two men should be ‘brothers’ again, as they may have been before.

In the director’s talk before the show, Neil Bartlett had talked about not liking productions which told the audience what to think. I couldn’t help feeling as  I watched this performance that he’d fallen into the very same trap himself. In deciding so much about the play, and in some areas apparently judging the characters and the choices they make, he seems to have fallen out of sync with Will, who never seems to judge and who usually gives us at least two sides to everything. (Often it’s more like three or four, but then you see another one, and another. Why else do we keep coming back to these plays?) Because of these judgements, I found myself out of sympathy with the characters so much tonight that I was willing, nay wanting, Romeo and Juliet to die horribly so that we could all go home. I’m more accustomed to having a little sniffle somewhere in the finishing straight; this time it was all I could do to stay in my seat for the last half hour.

The performances. I’ve already mentioned the nurse and Juliet. Romeo was very good, though with less emotional input than I’m used to; more thinking than feeling, but at least I was clear about his character and emotional journey. I felt the friar was too theatrical, especially during the post-exile scene with Romeo. Romeo was speaking remarkably calmly and making a lot of sense, expressing his emotions and thoughts very clearly. The friar was raving and gesticulating wildly, looking the very picture of a mad fool which he paints of Romeo, so for once the friar seemed to be the immature one needing help from the wiser young man. Yet I was also aware that it’s the friar who points out to Romeo the positive perspective which Juliet has found for herself – that Romeo’s alive and Tybalt, who wanted to kill him, is dead. The friar seemed to be in another play at this point, and with David Dawson having played Smike in Nicholas Nickleby at Chichester, I decided that the overacting going on in the friar’s performance would have fitted very nicely into the Crummles’ production style. At times it bordered on hammy, though it never quite crossed that line. I assumed this was the manifestation of the director’s view that this was not a naturalistic piece of work, though usually I find the language does all that for you and semaphore practice is not required.

I found Lady Capulet’s accent (the actress is Hungarian) a distraction, as it took some time for me to get the hang of it, and I lost a lot of her lines because of it. Mercutio was quite good, especially in the Queen Mab speech, but alas his role was cut short, as usual. Although I liked his performance, I felt his character didn’t matter so much in this play, where all but the leads and nursy were remarkably undifferentiated. It’s as if none of these people mattered all that much, it was Verona itself that killed them all – a touch of Fuente Ovejuna – but here it doesn’t seem to help the play, leaving it remarkably cold. For such a passionate people, with love, sex, fighting and vendettas constantly on the agenda, that seems inappropriate.

The fight scenes weren’t entirely convincing, but that may be partly because of the understudy, so no criticism intended. The finger clicking to restart the action or denote a change of scene, usually when the scenes were being overlapped, was too erratic to be effective. On the whole, I found that the strange mixture of realism – costumes, knives, music, etc – jarred with the stylistically heightened acting, so that I could never fully engage with the production. I actually felt the Victorian type of ending, as depicted  by Dickens, would work just as well here, as so many of the characters came across as clowns. Paris, for example, with his suit and little ‘tache, reminded me of Captain Darling from Blackadder 4, and his behaviour suggested the similarity may not have been accidental. It’s possible that this production works much better on a proscenium arch stage; if so, I hope they adjust rapidly, as we’re due to see this again during the Winter School, and I’m not sure how I’ll handle it if there aren’t some changes. [Didn’t get to see it again, in fact]

© 2008 Sheila Evans at