I’ve seen far too many productions of this play, really (and would have ended up seeing up to three more around now – at the Globe, National & Regent’s Park Open Air Theatres – had none of this ever happened). The central conceit of intense love & commitment at first sight is so hard to get right for a modern audience – you need to really feel the pressure they are under to be able to understand their actions. Two versions I’ve seen have really done that for me: Wolf-Sister Productions‘ at the Rose Playhouse (set in a refugee camp) and Daniel Kramer‘s production in the Summer of Love season at the Globe (A Clockwork Orange meets Romeo & Juliet in the Marvel Universe). The raw emotion and the sense of a ticking time bomb really came to the fore.
It was probably a good thing that friend of The Show Must Go Online Annabelle Higgins was there to advocate for the play in this week’s introduction, batting for it as a girl of a similar age to Juliet as well as a fan. As is the case in most of Shakespeare’s plays, the story wasn’t an original of his – in fact it ended up being a rewrite of a rewrite, a “timeless” play created through good sourcing. There is an “atmosphere of hate”, though the play still manages to centre on love (be it dutiful, romantic, or platonic) and the title characters’ “strong and headstrong affection”; the descriptions of beauty & love are everywhere, contrasting with the ugly & deadly rivalry between the Montagues and Capulets. Though she acknowledged the “triumph of soul over sense” in the play’s trajectory, this was a spirited defence from Higgins, which hopefully future productions will learn from.
I may be cynical and hard to win over with certain aspects of the story, but there’s no such trouble when it comes to the writing itself. The weaving of fate & destiny begins straightaway, as the Chorus gives us a concise synopsis before anything even happens – to borrow Doctor Who parlance, the lovers’ end becomes a fixed point in time as soon as we hear the lines “From forth the fatal loins of these two foes / A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life”.
The beginning of the play proper sets the tone, with a brawl between servants from the Montague & Capulet households – it leads to the Prince of Verona setting the death penalty for anyone else who takes part in any future street fights. The Capulets are preparing for a ball, where they hope their daughter Juliet will begin a courtship with Count Paris. Romeo, meanwhile, is infatuated with Rosaline (a niece of Capulet’s), though his feelings are not requited; Benvolio & Mercutio persuade him to sneak into the Capulet ball to try and take his mind off her – which is successful, as he meets & falls in love with Juliet, and they quickly make a commitment to one another during the infamous balcony scene. Unbeknownst to Romeo, Juliet’s cousin Tybalt has recognised him and makes plans to avenge what he perceives as an insult to the Capulets’ honour…
This week’s game was to spot the “tremors in the Force”, where the characters intuitively sense the action of forces “bigger than them”. I picked up on a few, though I didn’t make that many notes as I was thoroughly engrossed by the production! Events could have been stopped in their tracks very early on had Romeo listened to his instincts about attending the ball (“…for my mind misgives / Some consequence yet hanging in the stars / Shall bitterly begin his fearful date / With this night’s revels, and expire the term / Of a despisèd life closed in my breast / By some vile forfeit of untimely death. /But he that hath the steerage of my course, / Direct my sail.“): no meeting with Juliet, some more pining for Rosaline, and (probably) fewer deaths. This ties in neatly with his cry of “I am fortune’s fool!” in Act 3 Scene 1, after he kills Tybalt following Mercutio’s death and is forced to go to ground – just moments after his secret wedding.
Another big one is the conversation between the newlyweds as Romeo prepares to head into exile:
O God, I have an ill-divining soul.
Methinks I see thee now, thou art so low
As one dead in the bottom of a tomb.
Either my eyesight fails, or thou look’st pale.
And trust me, love, in my eye so do you.
Dry sorrow drinks our blood. Adieu, adieu!
Fearing the worst at their parting, they predict each other’s deaths – for once, not too much of an overreaction from the pair. Later, in Mantua, Romeo declares “Then I defy you, stars!”, little knowing that this course is exactly what was planned for him all along.
I think you can tell that this version definitely gave me a greater appreciation of the play – it’s up there with Kramer’s production for sure. In this medium you can’t always have that many frills, which certainly worked to Romeo & Juliet‘s advantage; the simple but effective red & blue colour scheme for Montagues & Capulets respectively (with the Prince in purple, working on so many levels – the combination of red & blue, its association with royalty, and even a nod to The Artist Formerly Known As), a fun piece of choreography for the Capulet ball, and a lot of thought about varying camera angles all came together to create something very special. The constant reminder of fate’s hand with a prop showing the stars coming into alignment between acts was another wonderful addition.
As ever, bringing together a top-notch cast also helps. First mention has to go to the fight team, who did an incredible job of creating the street-fighting atmosphere of Verona to life – it was definitely helpful in making you realise that this is a dangerous place to live, and that your allegiance could put you at risk of death or serious injury. Adam Turns stood out as Mercutio; his native Sunderland accent really suited the character, for one thing, and his balance between playful comedy early on & the stark tragedy of Mercutio’s death was spot on. Evangeline Dickson & Sulin Hasso in the title roles absolutely blew me away. They managed to create great chemistry, intimacy & poignancy despite being miles apart & on separate screens, and the genuine emotional core really came through – both in their moments together and when they’re apart (you could feel why Romeo was compelled to avenge Mercutio, for example).
Once again The Show Must Go Online has the magic touch. Despite being a Shakespeare fanatic, I do have certain stumbling blocks in the canon, so I’m glad I can rely on the team to bring clarity & newfound appreciation where it’s most needed.
Next week: A Midsummer Night’s Dream