“Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.”
The traditional view of Romeo & Juliet is that of a tragic love story, but is that all it ever has to be? Not if you’re Ola Ince. Her brand new production of one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, having been delayed by COVID in 2020, has finally opened at the Globe Theatre – instead of going all-out on the romance, this version focuses on the context of the hasty marriage and the way society & family life can adversely affect younger generations.
With a running time of around 1h50, it is a rare example of the prologue’s declaration (“Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage”) coming true, as the company hurtles from fight to party to balcony to wedding to death at a rapid pace. The intensity of this approach (playing without an interval) works to the production’s advantage, as the drama & tension are allowed to keep building – heading to its inevitable, fatal conclusion.
Romeo & Juliet is a play that doesn’t always suit modern eyes, with teenagers rushing into marriage less than 24 hours after meeting, and not much longer after that deciding that they can’t go on without one another – choosing to kill themselves rather than live when the other is dead. It can also be a tricky one to place in a present day setting, as the development of technology since the 16th century could negate some of the difficulties & miscommunication; finding a way of removing this logic from the audience’s thoughts is key.
Ince’s choice to explain the characters’ motives and the world in which they’re living sets this up brilliantly, and forces you to look at the play anew. Following the previous day’s Anti-racist Shakespeare webinar, I already had something to ponder whilst watching the play (such as the toxic masculinity that goes unchallenged, and is used as a mask by Romeo to hide his true intentions from Benvolio & Mercutio), but the stats, facts & analysis presented in the play really help things click into place. The statement is displayed on a screen onstage and read out by various members of the cast as it changes, chiming with the specific scenes taking place. It’s quite in-your-face, but I think that’s needed in order to hammer the message home. The only thing I might have preferred is for there to be a Chorus, to perform the prologue and then make these statements throughout the play, as sometimes it feels a bit messy effectively having the characters make these pronouncements.
As well as allowing the audience to see this story from a fresh perspective, this production would also be excellent for introducing people to the play. The cast & musicians all introduce themselves before the main action starts, ensuring clarity from the outset; it’s not necessarily too much of a problem with this particular play, but this approach would be greatly received in a slightly more complex piece! In order to fit with the shorter running time, it has been distilled down to the most essential parts – whilst I wouldn’t advocate for this every time, I’m certainly not precious about the text. Anything that makes the story & message clearer is fine by me (the full original text is available for free to anyone with internet access, after all), as it can act as a gateway to watching longer productions & a wider variety. I’m glad that the Globe is showing itself to be more open to this idea, though of course it’s more of a necessity at the moment to help with COVID safety.
Max Perryment’s music provides a great backdrop, and really comes into its own at the Capulet ball – brass & percussion definitely lend themselves as much to the celebratory moments as they do to accentuating the violence of the fights. There are many highlights in terms of performances, from Silas Carson & Beth Cordingly’s emotionally neglectful Capulet & Lady Capulet, to Sirine Saba’s slightly ditzy – yet surprisingly resilient – Nurse. Zoë West & Adam Gillen make an excellent double act as Benvolio & Mercutio, bouncing off each other as they tempt & cajole Romeo into various exploits.
As the title characters, Alfred Enoch & Rebekah Murrell are excellent; this is a socially distanced production, which obviously comes with some restrictions, but they don’t need to get up close & personal to demonstrate their bond. What consistently comes through is Romeo & Juliet’s innocence and need for distraction – this story is not about romance, it’s about escape. They attempt to run away from their problems, but their circumstances catch up with them in the end.
My verdict? A new & vital take on the classic Verona tale, contextualising the characters’ motives – this is not about romance, it’s about escape.
Romeo & Juliet runs at Shakespeare’s Globe until 17 October 2021. Tickets are available online. Live-streamed performances are due to take place on 10 July & 7 August 2021, and there is a midnight matinée on 17 July 2021. If you are affected by any of the issues raised in the production, you can find advice & support from organisations such as the Samaritans (116 123) and The Listening Place (020 3906 7676).