“I know how this one ends,” complained one reluctant theatre- goer to an RSC programme seller upon being told that the afternoon’s performance of Romeo and Juliet would last approximately three hours. (As a side point, this somewhat deviates from Shakespeare’s promised “two hour’s traffic” but no matter.) His very attitude seemed to suggest that because he knew of the tragic death- strewn end, then there was little point in his watching it happen. Unfortunately for this gentleman, that is exactly where he is mistaken, and his obstinacy rather defeats the object of theatre. For the point is, of course, that everybody knows the ending that awaits the “star- crossed lovers” of the Capulets and Montagues. It was a popular tale long before Shakespeare immortalised it as one of the most quoted plays in the English language. Thus, even Elizabethan audiences would have been arriving at Shakespeare’s playhouse with the foreknowledge that within five acts time Romeo and Juliet would lie dead in each other’s arms, this before the Chorus reveals it in the very first scene. I wonder if they too complained.
Alongside the old “everyone dies in the end, don’t they?!” joke, is the preconceived notion that Romeo and Juliet is a romantic play. Its scenes are heralded as examples of great love; its language repeated by subsequent hopeful young lovers. Not so in this RSC production. Any idyllic vision of romanticism is torn down to the bare raging of teenage hormones, and the focus lies not on the love that they build, but on the brutish family feuding from which they are trying to escape. They never do seem to escape in this set, for the stage is permanently the same- oppressively dark and cold whether night-time or day-time. You forget the intended location- Verona in its hot summer months. Even the props were sparse. The bed was the only one notable, juxtaposed with the grave, which, when dragged with hellish clanging from the darkness of the back of the stage, is an impressive piece of showmanship. To drive home the tragedy, the grave works both as the final and only resting place of Romeo and Juliet- you never see them lying in their marriage bed together.
The director, Neil Bartlett, has expressed his desire to emphasise the brutality of the play, and this he has proceeded to do with frightening accuracy. The Italian setting lends itself easily to a Godfather-esque rendering, with the Capulets and Montagues becoming veritable Mafia types. The wives, often as violent as their husbands, replace their inability to speak with dramatic arm gestures which, although a somewhat clichéd Mafia symbol, effectively fills the space that their words don’t.
In a culture of ever- prevalent knife crime, the fight scenes appear brutal indeed. The boys’ weapons never seem far from their fingertips, often slipping out with sinister clicks to punctuate the end, or beginning, of sentences. Members of the families slide in and out like shadows, menacingly, culminating with the ghost of Tybalt appearing to Juliet as she waits for her husband. Dark indeed. Mercutio struts around stage as if asking for a fight after every word he speaks. Disappointingly, this is all he’s passionate about. His other speeches lack conviction as he swans around making innuendo. His death seems inevitable, for the knives have been menacing from the very first scene, when the Chorus’ introduction descends into every cast member (including the Signoras, as previously mentioned), and disappointingly even this happens off stage.
We’re made to feel uncomfortable when Juliet’s age (still shy of 14) is repeatedly emphasised, and we border on the notion of cradle snatching when Romeo appears in Juliet’s bedroom (the iconic balcony, a post- Shakespeare addition, is removed and Romeo and Juliet act nearly on the same level- demolishing any romantic idolising of Juliet “the sun” appearing angelically from above).
Perhaps we’ve been over-influenced by Baz Luhrmann’s blockbusting hit film “Romeo + Juliet”. His slick, modern version is memorable and bewitching, for it can tempt us away from the original Shakespeare text. David Dawson’s Romeo was certainly of a Leonardo diCaprio fibre. He drips around stage with floppy Caprio-esque hair and permanent tears in his eyes, whether they be for the ill-fated Rosaline or iller-fated Juliet. His fickleness is forever a problem, but I question whether this is his character, and not the acting of this relative unknown.
“I wanted to slap him,” was one response, “he’s just so wet!” And wet indeed it was, with Romeo drowning the stage with tears (like the actor who takes the part of Hecuba in Hamlet) and certain other characters (notably Lord Capulet, and the young Italian men) being so engrossed in the mafia façade that they sprayed the air with spit at every other word.
Juliet, on the other hand, succeeded in being engaging, once you managed to think past her age and the colour- blind casting. She was energetic and passionate in her youthfulness; her words did not seem recycled as Romeo’s sometimes do as, for her, they are fresh and new. She and perhaps the friar were the most believable characters on stage. Others, the nurse, for example, and Mercutio again, failed to capitalise on the humour that is available in their parts.
Was I impressed?
It certainly had me thinking, and made me want to return to the text for a re-examination. Clearly I had been misguided and too easily influenced by other productions I had seen. Romeo and Juliet was the first Shakespeare I ever saw acted, so there I have been led into sentimentality. In my teens a brief study of the sonnet scene (“palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss”) led me into viewing the play with romantic tinted spectacles. The Leonardo diCaprio/ Claire Danes craze amongst my peers made the play modern and cool, which works well, but led me to forget its deeper, brutal edges. This RSC production is refreshing and challenging. Even if it doesn’t hang as tightly as it might, I can applaud Bartlett’s motives. And even though I still know how it ends, I’ll never read or see Romeo and Juliet in the same way again.