Romeo and Juliet, Royal Shakespeare Company, August 2018

Romeo and Juliet, dir. Erica Whyman, at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 23 August 2018

This is not a review, but rather some responses to this production, which I enjoyed very much; I am already pleasurably anticipating seeing it again on the London transfer. It chimed with many of the things I’ve been interested in, writing about the play every day this year, and I can see already that it’ll form a central part of my discussion of recent productions in my new introduction for the Cambridge edition.

It’s always a pleasure to see a Tom Piper design (and, on this occasion, Tamburlaine the previous night, in the Swan, too, which took me back to the glories of the Histories): stylish economy; a strong sense of location without fussiness or much specificity; flexibility; moments of great beauty (here, the dangling ‘stars’ making the night sky, the lush green foliage revealed as the backdrop to Friar Lawrence’s cell, the striking glow of the side-lighting at the beginning of the balcony scene, and the slow dawn). The central feature of a rotating cube created an upper stage, not just for the balcony scene, but in that scene at least, apparently unclimbable (hooray). Costume choices coherent, understated, with lovely touches of sparkle for the party; the lack of any kind of specific, detailed realism in the setting in particular meant that the problem which can lurk in contemporary productions (here are Young People wearing jeans and hoodies and yet unaccountably they have no phones) wasn’t an issue.

I found Karen Fishwick and Bally Gill utterly believable and very touching as the lovers, convincingly young (Romeo’s angularity; Juliet’s beautiful hair; their tremendous energy, together and apart) but also performing their rapid growing-up as the play unfolded. Their meeting a proper coup de foudre. I liked the sense that these (with Benvolio and Mercutio) were not, perhaps, the coolest kids in town, but rather the indie kids, fiercely bright, witty, fluid in their gender and sexuality in a very C21 way. No ghosts of Jets and Sharks here, thank goodness (or, interestingly, of the high camp of Baz L’s version, which I do still rate very highly); they were instantly recognizable to anyone who works with young people Now. It was wonderfully refreshing to see Juliet not as a princess, but as a zippy, mouthy young woman in skinny jeans – huge respect for the quick change between 3.5 and 4.1…

Charlotte Josephine (Mercutio) is a phenomenon and I can’t wait to see what she’ll do next; the casting worked wonderfully and Queen Mab in particular was a tour de force, dangerous, excessive, melding brilliantly into the party scene. (My sense of its cognitive effects on the audience, its exuberant buzz, priming imaginative capacities, felt smugly vindicated.) And yes, Benvolio frankly in love with Romeo – why the hell not, beautifully, ruefully played by Josh Finan. I was more conscious of his disappearance from the play than is sometimes the case; his silent reappearance in the final scene was especially gut-wrenching. The different aesthetic of Tybalt and Paris – sharp suits and shirts, as well as their being slightly older and, in Tybalt’s case (Raphael Sowole) much more physically imposing, set up a distinction that was visually striking but all the more interesting for not mapping straightforwardly onto distinctions of class or ethnicity; age, perhaps.

I liked the normalization of the weapons – the holsters – and also the choice of blades that were neither daggers nor (yawn) flick knives. I thought it was particularly effective to have the central fight between Tybalt and Mercutio beginning as sparring with fists, almost play-fighting; it made the escalation from verbal needling to physical violence, from words to blows, much more seamless, and very much chimed with the production’s avowed (and eloquently expressed, in a programme essay) engagement with knife crime: this is how fast, and how appallingly, things can escalate irrevocably when knives are carried as a matter of course. The speed of Tybalt’s death especially notable – this really was heat of the moment, a terrible mistake.

The parents played slightly younger – the redistribution of the Montague lines – made them a much more coherent, believable social set than is sometimes the case (I liked the implication that the Capulets, especially Lady C, were hard-drinking, and the sheer nastiness of Capulet himself: no possibility of humouring him in his dotage here). And one of the best Nurses I’ve ever seen, again all the better for being played younger than is so often the case, and not being caricatured; her appearance at a run into the tomb scene was heart-breaking.

The cuts were pretty seamless – no one’s ever really going to miss the second Chorus, or the comic servants at the beginning of the party or the wedding preparations. I did miss the ‘mansion of a love’ in ‘Gallop apace’ and wondered about the rationale or if it was just an inadvertent omission in that performance. And, sorry, I do think that ‘Ethiop’s ear’ is preferable to ‘ebony ear’; part of how that simile works is in the fleeting imagining of light on skin, its immediate tactility and sensuality. Distancing it with another metaphor within the simile, and one which interposes the possibility of a different material, wood, dilutes its force. The dividing of the Prologue between multiple voices, fragmenting into incoherence and then being reassembled, worked wonderfully, and I particularly liked the (anonymous) inclusion of Romeo and Juliet themselves here.

The dawn scene: well, if you’re going to show the lovers ‘in bed’ rather than ‘at the window’ (I went on about this at length here) then this is a great way of doing it, using the revolving cube, topped with a mattress, and vastly preferable to placing a bed downstage. I was fascinated by the choice of bringing the lovers onstage before the end of the interval, intertwined on the set of stairs, before they slowly, sleepily climbed the last few steps to the mattress. I’d been expecting them to climb up from the interior of the cube (as Juliet had for the balcony scene and ‘gallop apace’) or to be revealed from a blackout, and I thought that the potential for discomfort in the audience, a sense of voyeurism generated by the house lights being up, was very interesting, although perhaps many people didn’t notice. They managed real joy – there were laughs for the putative meteor – as well as heartbreak.

Quibbles? Friar Lawrence’s fussy little basket of flowers, which seemed at odds with the uncluttered aesthetic of other scenes. Maybe the sightlines for the tomb scene. I liked the elevation, and the setting of the lovers, once again set apart, on the upper stage, which was entirely coherent – but it did make it quite remote (we were in the circle; I’ll be interested to see it from the stalls. I realize that the staging of this scene is always Tricky). I have observed in lectures that it’s really unusual to see a bloodstained Juliet (I’m interested in the emphasis on the perfect fit of body and blade, even though Capulet does say ‘look how our daughter bleeds’, and also, from a practical point of view, it’s so near the end of the play that it can easily be cheated and avoid the laundry. But I guess Wardrobe’s got stain-removal down to a fine art this season, what with Duchess of Malfi and Tamburlaine too…)

After so much anticipation – and personal and professional over-investment – I was apprehensive about finally seeing the show. But I was delighted by it, by the thoughtfulness, clarity, energy, and integrity of the production as a whole (I can’t imagine a clearer, calmer setting-out of a rationale for regendered casting than Erica Whyman’s programme essay), and in particular by the passion, humour, and intelligence of the central performances.



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