Went to see the RSC Romeo and Juliet at the Roundhouse on Saturday.
There’s a lot of energy in the opening, the “do you bite your thumb” gang wars shattering the brief peace of the museum set prologue. It was actually scary: the slashing, chain-wielding frenzy threatened to overspill the tiny apron of the stage and the pyrotechnics were hot on my face, even though I was three rows back. If I’d have been at the front, I’d have been worried I’d have lost an eye. By the time the prince stepped in I was visualising the charred bodies; there was more than a whiff of fear. There’s the same level of energy at the Capulets’ ball. The choreography – as well as the pyrotechnics – is outstanding in this production. Also the music from a band perched on the 2nd floor balcony (much as they were in the RSC’s Much Ado About Nothing four years ago, although there were, alas, no Cuban rhythms in this).
The fire, smoke and CO2 in the opening scene have a huge impact; heightened by the fire projected on the the three-storey stage. But the fire was projected at points throughout the production that made less sense to me – like the nifty little hydraulic rostrum it felt overused. Another thing I didn’t fully understand were the costumes, a mixture of modern dress and Elizabethan inspired outfits coupled with Doc Marten footwear (Elizabethan-punk?); the significance of the timing with which characters switched between one and another was lost on me.
Mariah Gale as Juliet gave the best performance in the role that I’ve seen. It was an amazing: physically childish but psychologically tough; during the two-hour traffic of their stage (well, three hour) she seemed to grow up. In her first appearance she seemed young for a thirteen year old, wearing converse with her party dress and swinging a toy while her parents discussed her marriage. But the energy of her dancing (albeit wild, childish, unselfconscious) at the party made her fascination for Romeo understandable. Her performance also made me realise, for the first time, how admirable she is as a character. This was emphasised by an interesting take on Capulet as an abusive father. While I wasn’t entirely convinced by the way it was played, the scene where Juliet refuses to wed Paris (played over the breakfast table) hinted at something that made sense of his character for me for the first time. On his entrance, he shares a close moment of intimacy with his daughter as, in sympathy, he tries to cheer her up (“In one little body/Thou counterfeit’st a bark, a sea, a wind;”) It’s a genuine moment of father/daughter affection, and it’s what give the scene its power. When he sits down to eat and hears of her defiance, there’s a chill, and the mood changes. Lady Capulet’s delivery is resigned rather than indignant (“Ay, sir; but she will none, she gives you thanks.”) It’s an excellent performance from Christine Entwistle, conveying the cowering resignation of a woman who has given up determining her own course, seeking comfort where she can (Tybalt?) and avoiding confronting Capulet at all costs. Juliet shivers out of control (you can picture her, aged 7, chained to a radiator for rearranging daddy’s desk) but does not give in under his tirade (“hang, beg, starve, die in/the streets.”) His outburst is shockingly sudden and violent, and the portrayal of Capulet as a noble man wronged by his daughter never made sense for me. The fun father who loves to be loved, to be the life and soul, and yet who turns nasty the second he doesn’t get his own way, that has a ring of truth about it.
Juliet’s fears, as she prepares to take the fake-death-potion (yes, the plot isn’t this play’s strong point) always seemed to me a little like childish fantasies. I’ve seen it played that way – and well – ie as an affected indulgence: delicious fear, like monsters under the bed. But playing terror for real worked, made more real by the excruciating pain the draught seemed to cause her (after all, does it ever say it is painless?) further evidence as to what she was prepared to go through to take control of her fate.
Juliet, then, a bit of a heroine.
I still think Romeo is a bit of a twerp. Sam Troughton is perhaps best known for his role as a bit of twerp in Robin Hood (and, to Doctor Who nerds, for being the grandson of second Doctor Patrick Troughton and the son of the King of Peladon David Troughton). Troughton’s Romeo was, however, reasonably sympathetic. He’s a drip, sure, and inconstant (switching from Rosaline to Juliet at a glance). We argued afterwards over whether he was changed by Juliet (that this was LOVE the real thing, and he was prepared to die for her) but I still think he was primarily driven by the need to validate his own self image. When I described to someone else the portrayal of Romeo as an emo in a hoodie (which isn’t in fact totally accurate or fair) he said “I hate it when they do that”. But I rather like it because when I read the play I always imaging Romeo as an emo in a hoodie. Despite that Troughton’s Romeo is neither sullen nor overly introspective, he’s cultured, loyal, and tries to live up to his own ideals.
Jonjo O’Neill was an entertaining Mercutio, but in somehow his crucial death scene didn’t ring true. Mercutio seems desperate for entertainment, his greatest fear is boredom and motivated by this and his apparent belief in his own invincibility picks a fight when he fails to spur Romeo into one. I see the jokes he makes as he dies (“Ask for/me to-morrow, and you shall find me a grave man.”) as the reflexes of a chicken with his head cut off. But his anger (“plague o’ both your houses”) should be real, it is, after all, what fuels Romeo’s fateful (literally) choice to provoke a fight to the death (also literally) with Tybalt. Playing it too jokey deflates a key scene.
The other stand-out performance for me Noma Dumezweni. Juliet’s nurse must be a great role to play, but often it’s a two-mode bawdy/wailing combo. Dumezweni imbued her with a lot of character.
And finally: the cutting of Shakespeare. Since a director I worked with once cut this play down to the two hours described in the prologue, I cannot see why anyone would leave Friar Laurence’s enormous (and pointless) recap at the end. It’s not like we’ve been standing at the Globe only catching half the words over the noise of the bawdy rabble. Come to that, why leave in Paris’ death scene, or Laurence’s penultimate visit to the tomb? I don’t see what they add, either.
The other the niggling irritation (and I’m going to be pernickety here) is the cuts that should be made to be consistent with the staging: if Romeo puts out the torch before he dies, then having Friar Laurence subsequently refer to it is nonsense (“What torch is yond, that vainly lends his light…It burneth in the Capel’s monument.” NO IT DOESN’T). Also if you’re going to have Tybalt strangled to death the repeated references to his being skewered by a rapier don’t make sense either (the clever-clever Rapier 9mm guns in Luhrmann’s version were one way round this, but cutting’s simpler).
Since I’m down to the niggles, there’s clearly not to complain about in this production. Such minor flaws as there may be are more than made up for by the energy and authenticity; it’s got a freshness that makes you rethink the play; there are some excellent performances and it would be well worth seeing for Mariah Gale’s Juliet alone.