“For never was a story of more woe, than this of Juliet and her Romeo.” And I’m fairly sure there has never been an instance of a Shakespeare piece being played out in something akin to the Marvel Universe before – that’s where Daniel Kramer comes in. The ENO artistic director has taken on this most famous of tragedies as the season opener for the Globe’s Summer of Love, making a bold statement with his thrillingly modern interpretation.
We all know the story: the Montagues and Capulets are locked in an ancient feud that is threatening to overwhelm Verona with its bloody violence, but in the midst of this the children of the two dynasties meet by chance and fall in love. They secretly head down the aisle in record time, only for Romeo to fall foul of the law and get sent into exile. Juliet, in desperation, agrees to a dangerous plan in order to avoid being married off by her father and reunite with her husband – however, Romeo is led to believe she’s died, rather than just taken a drug that makes her appear to be lifeless. He kills himself beside her in the Capulet tomb just before she awakes; unable to contemplate a life without Romeo she does the same.
As well as the graphic novel feel, there is more than a hint of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange to proceedings, with the warring families like Alex and his droogs indulging in a spot of ultraviolence when they clash. Much like last year’s Imogen, it’s mostly set to pounding dance beats that reverberate through the entire theatre. The cartoonish feel extends to the actors’ face pain, all with a base of stark white and customised for each character. It’s unashamedly bold, in-your-face and bristling with energy.
This modern twist highlights the adaptability of Shakespeare and gives him extra appeal to a contemporary audience; this production speaks to me far more than any other version of the story ever has, be it on stage or screen. The implausibility of the hurried romance is still there, but by depicting Romeo as an emo it suddenly makes so much more sense – particularly in explaining his sudden switch of affections from Rosaline to Juliet. The production showcases a lot of humour that is there in the text but often gets overlooked, though this is mostly limited to the first half as Mercutio and Tybalt’s deaths propel the drama forward and mark a shift in mood and tone.
One of the best innovations in this production is the overlapping of some scenes, such as the lead-up to Mercutio and Tybalt’s fight with Romeo and Juliet’s wedding. For one thing it keeps up a snappy pace, as well as drawing on the parallels and links between scenes as Fate deals her hand. It’s also a dash of realism, allowing events that would most likely be happening alongside each other to be shown onstage at the right time – much like jumping between scenes in film or TV, but to greater effect as contrasting emotions are played out together in front of you.
Soutra Gilmour’s set design ensures that the threat of violence and the stench of death are never far away; the suggestion of mutually assured destruction flying high through the missiles hanging above the stage, plus the empty grave front and centre. Despite lilies being the most well-known funeral flower, roses are also surprisingly common – Gilmour employs widespread use of deep red roses, symbolising love and grief (two pertinent themes for the play). The ‘SON’ and ‘DAUGHTER’ wreaths placed at the front of the stage on either side during the interval probably make striking images for patrons sat in the galleries, however they urgently need to be re-though as they block the entire view for even the tallest of groundlings. No design is worth sacrificing the view for.
Charles Balfour’s lighting design adds splashes of colour to a largely monochromatic world, particularly effective as night sets in. Music also plays a massive part in the storytelling, soundtracking the violence and emotion, and even providing light relief for the Capulet ball, with an unforgettable rendition of a classic party tune. I can see why they’ve chosen not to use actual gunshot sounds, as it wouldn’t fit with the not-quite-real feel to the piece, but shouts of “BANG!” aren’t always in keeping with the tone – especially in the closing stages.
An incredibly strong cast has been assembled, making it difficult to pick out highlights without inevitably missing someone out. Golda Rosheuvel plays a female Mercutio – not much is explored in terms of her gender, however I think it would feel overly forced and not really fit with the rest of the production to push this too far. As it is, a playful and trusting relationship is portrayed between her, Benvolio (Jonathan Livingstone) and Romeo (Edward Hogg). Rosheuvel also comes into her own in the latter stages with her haunting vocals. Blythe Duff and Ricky Champ are brilliantly cast as the Nurse and Tybalt, respectively – Duff’s Scottish nurse brings a warmth and humanity that is otherwise lacking in Juliet’s life, and Champ retains some intelligence and humour in Tybalt, rather than just playing him as an all-out thug.
Undeniably, however, Edward Hogg and Kirsty Bushell as the eponymous couple really do stand out. They have chemistry by the bucketload, and their shared gift for humour shines through – particularly in an hilariously performed ‘balcony’ scene, Bushell recognising Juliet’s coming on very strong and playing it up, and Hogg battling his way through the groundling ‘trees’. But that’s not all, as they excel in the emotional scenes. Romeo’s near-catatonic despair when he sees Juliet for the first time after killing Tybalt is heartbreakingly played by Hogg – and Bushell’s portrayal of Juliet’s death is extraordinarily visceral and affecting, bringing an emotional depth that surely tugs at even the tightest of heartstrings.
My verdict? The star-crossed lovers as you’ve never seen them before, assuredly making the Globe’s space their own – a visceral, powerful and unforgettable production.
Romeo & Juliet runs at Shakespeare’s Globe until 9 July 2017. Tickets are available online or from the box office. Standing tickets for £5.