There’s an argument for believing that Romeo and Juliet is the greatest love story of all time; although maybe they’re too young, and in love too briefly, to lay claim to that accolade in full. Of course, today, to be termed a Romeo is more of an insult than a compliment. It implies all show and no commitment; possibly a roving eye and a love ‘em and leave ‘em attitude. True, Shakespeare’s Romeo starts off in love with Rosaline (Juliet’s cousin, so he was always attracted by those damned Capulets) but all it takes is just one glimpse of Juliet, and Rosaline’s toast. Funnily enough, no one ever gets called a Juliet, by comparison.
Erica Whyman’s new production at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre has a few stand-out and inventive aspects. It toys with sex and sexuality to an extent that I’ve not really seen done seriously in a Shakespeare play before. For example, both recent productions of Julius Caesar that we’ve seen over the last year or so have featured a female Cassius, which was interesting inasmuch that it shows that a woman can be just as good a lead conspirator as a man – no real surprise there. But in this production, we go one (or possibly several) steps beyond.
Escalus, Prince of Verona, is played by a woman, Beth Cordingly. She’s a no-nonsense, strict ruler who has to act decisively to keep the peace between those pesky Montagues and Capulets; but she’s always referred to as a Prince, and it’s a strong, authoritative performance from Ms Cordingly. Mercutio, Romeo’s friend and cousin of Escalus, is also played by a woman, Charlotte Josephine. The character is always referred to as “she”, so she’s definitely female, although they haven’t gone down the line of feminising the name into Mercutia. This Mercutio has all the blokey belligerence you’d normally expect from the role, and I guess you’d see her as something of a tomboy. I wasn’t expecting this characterisation, and at first I confess it irritated me a little, but as I got used to her, I appreciated that she had as much right to be part of the gang as anyone else. It was a challenge to me, and one that caught me out at first – and that’s definitely my bad.
Benvolio, on the other hand, is still played by a man, Josh Finan, but with a mancrush on Romeo as a big as a rainbow coloured unicorn. Bally Gill’s Romeo comes across as 100% straight, and doesn’t remotely notice how Benvolio has to catch his breath and fan himself after he plants a big excited smacker on Benvolio’s lips. Mr Finan gives an excellent performance as Benvolio and really highlights the difficulties of being gay in a very straight group. These modern interpretations certainly bring the play bang up to date and help our understanding of these characters and the issues they face.
But a play like Romeo and Juliet is nothing if it doesn’t speak clearly to its audience. No degree of directorial embellishment, no manipulation of the text to support weird clever-clever theories, or re-imagination of the play in another time or place simply because we’ve got some great props can make the slightest bit of difference if the story isn’t told simply, from the heart, and true to the original. I’m so glad to be able to report that this Romeo and Juliet is about as clear as you can get.
At least, that’s true after the first fifteen minutes or so. For the first scene we are bombarded with a cacophony of lines from a bunch of people whom we know nothing about and I was instantly lost. To be fair I think this was the Chorus’ speech that begins Act Two of the play; but the alert amongst us realised we were only at Act One. I felt harangued and deliberately confused, and feared the worst for the rest of the night. Warring factions started to form; Montagues and Capulets, no doubt, literally thumbing their nose at each other and then running away like naughty schoolkids. I blame the parents. Romeo’s caught up in this bunch of idiots; a lot of street-fighting, anger, teasing and generally bad behaviour. I thought we’d skipped Romeo and Juliet and gone straight to the gang violence of West Side Story but without the songs.
However, once it had all settled down, and we’d been introduced to the youthfully ebullient Juliet (Karen Fishwick), her gossipy, fussy and slightly coarse Nurse (Ishia Bennison) and her hands-off, hesitant and generally inadequate mother (Mariam Haque), the production just took on its own life force and thrilled, delighted and horrified its way through the next two and a half hours, never taking a wrong turn. Tom Piper’s design consists of a box. That’s all there is. You can move it around so that it becomes a cave, or Juliet’s balcony, or the Capulet Family Tomb, but, at the end of the day, it’s just a box. And the simplicity of that reflects the simplicity of the story-telling, enabling the audience’s imagination to fill in all the blanks, which is just how I like it.
But it’s all about R & J, isn’t it? Two incredible, first rate performances that make you laugh and (almost) cry; certainly that remind you of your younger days when you used to make a fool of yourself over someone you fancied, and how you were horrified when your new-found love didn’t go down well with the rest of the family. Bally Gill’s Romeo is the embodiment of that chap that all the girls want to be with and all the guys want to be like; bright, great company, funny and hideously good looking to boot. As he sidles up to the Capulet garden party only to veer away at the last minute through embarrassment you know this is someone you can identify with. Montague or Capulet, he’s our Romeo. We’re completely on his side. And for Shakespeare purists, when it comes to his delivering the classic lines of poetical love, he’s as eloquent and passionate as you could wish.
And he’s matched by a sensational Juliet in the form of Karen Fishwick; if you think Juliets should be all pure and demure, think again. Ms Fishwick plays her as a spirited wild child, full of adventure, a giggling provocatrice who can’t wait to start living and loving – provided it’s with the man she chooses. When her domineering father sets her up with Paris – to be wed a few days after her cousin Tybalt has been killed (and awkwardly having already married his murderer) – you won’t believe the fit of fury that overtakes Juliet, pounding the cushions with flailing fists, shrieking her refusal to comply. You can see where she gets this hot-headedness from; her father Lord Capulet disciplines her with a substantial roughing-up that takes you by uncomfortable surprise – a very good physical performance there by Michael Hodgson.
I loved Ishia Bennison’s kind-hearted, meddlesome but very knowing Nurse, who created a good deal of comedy out of her characterisation. Andrew French gave a perfect portrayal of Friar Laurence, just the kind of cleric you would want as your own family priest; understanding, non-judgmental and with a sense of humour – the kind of person you could confide in. Raphael Sowole’s Tybalt is a figure of intimidating power, although no match for Romeo’s fancy footwork with a knife; and I really liked Afolabi Alli as Paris, a refined, polite characterisation but showing just that flash of sleaziness as he relishes the prospect of getting Juliet between the sheets.
An intelligent yet accessible production of what may be considered the ultimate tragedy, yet retaining a brilliant lightness of touch to reflect the youthful aspirations of its characters. Hugely entertaining, and you leave with a much deeper insight into the characters than you had before. It’s in the Stratford repertoire until 21st September then in the Barbican repertoire from November to January 2019. Highly recommended!
Production photos by Topher McGrillis