‘Romeo and Juliet‘ is quite possibly the most famous love story of all time. One of Shakespeare’s best-known, and most-beloved, works, the play explores young and courtly love, love as a reconciliatory force, and the fatal consequences of conflict and vengeance. Now, over four hundred years after its publication, it continues to touch, and break, hearts.
The play is brought vividly to life against a contemporary urban backdrop by director Erica Whyman for the RSC, as this iconic work is adapted for the 21st century, heavily influenced by the climate of today. Interestingly, the production revolves around the idea of gang culture and knife crime, unfortunately rife among the youth of today, whilst the very fabric of the production has a particular emphasis on gender, identity and equality. The result is a current, topical and powerfully evocative adaptation of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ that resonates with today’s audiences, with a particular focus on young people, for whom the work of Shakespeare is made more accessible, and significantly more relatable, than ever before.
The play famously takes place over the course of just three days, and Whyman really seems to have toyed with the notion of pace in this work, to create a production that is altogether well-constructed, and particularly well-paced. The play opens with a prologue, and for this, the entire ensemble gather together on stage, and take turns to deliver a line each. However, after just a few lines, the cast begin to speak over each other, until they are all talking at once, repeating their lines, a cacophony of voices, united, equal, telling of the tragedy that will affect them all. Immediately, we are presented with this scene of panic, of chaos, and of desperation and, for a play as blisteringly eventful as this, where so much happens in such a short space of time, this is very apt – throughout, decisions are made in haste, impulse reigns, characters fall in love as quickly as they fall out of love – giving the audience a glimpse into, a warning of, the panic-stricken chaos that will ensue over the next few hours.
The prologue is then delivered at a more usual speed, the actors delivering their lines in turn, so that what we missed the first time around, they strive to mend. As Shakespeare did, cast and director, in slowing down, invite the audience to join them in the unfolding, indeed, the elaboration, of the overview given in the prologue. Whyman’s clever direction in the manipulation of pace certainly sets the tone for the remainder of the production – moments of electrifying intensity are juxtaposed with lengthy moments of poignancy and poetic elegance.
This is skilfully maintained throughout the production, notably during the Capulet’s ball. One minute, the guests are rocking out to drums and electric guitars, lights flashing and stage pounding, and the next, this noise, this commotion, drops into the background, and focus is solely on our two young lovers, as they see each other for the first time – everything else is stripped back to create an open honesty, a truth, between these two innocent young people. As the production progresses, time seems to slow when Romeo and Juliet are together, as we watch with bated breath their love blossom, from tender “bud”, to “beauteous flower”. Sometimes slow and wise, sometimes stumbling over itself, the production is hugely gripping, and very appropriately proportioned.
The contrast between this fast and slow pace is yet another contrast present within the production – Shakespeare’s language refers to many such opposites, not just those easily perceptible, such as the conflict between the houses of Montague and Capulet, but also that between the two opposing forces of love and hate, or “loving hate”. Although seemingly so different, so separate, polar opposites, it actually appears as though they are bound together, inextricably linked, sometimes indistinguishable, and it’s certainly true that one often leads to the other, sometimes possessing the other, and the play therefore has certain undertones that suggest things are not always as they might first appear.
Occasionally during the production, particularly so during the first half, stars line the back wall of the set, pitched against a black backdrop, heavenly, celestial, divine, a physical manifestation of the astronomical imagery present in Shakespeare’s text. Fate plays a huge part in this play. The characters are but playthings to the stars, prisoners to destiny. As foretold in the prologue, fate sets in motion a chain of events that all characters are equally powerless to stop, regardless of their status and/or position, unable to escape an inevitable outcome. The stars rule the heavens, omnisciently looking down on the characters, omnipotent forces, “a greater power than we can contradict”, thwarting the intentions of those below, manipulating from above, inconsiderate, insensitive, unfeeling. The course is set, unwavering, and nothing can prevent what is destined to happen, what is preordained, as the characters fall prey to “unhappy fortune”, “lamentable chance”. The tragic outcome is inevitable; there is no turning back.
Tom Piper’s design proves very effective, the perfect complement to the other elements in the production, enhancing the power of Shakespeare’s text. One large, metallic cube remains in the centre of the stage throughout the production, but is pushed around by the cast to make use of the stage, to reflect different locations, and to add a means of elevation by which the cast might ascend. Despite being a strikingly large inanimate object, the cube peculiarly appears a sort of symbol for love, bearing certain similarities to Romeo’s love in particular – although always present, it is fickle, changeable, inconstant, shifting, easily moved, susceptible to outside influence, and prey to manipulation. However, when fixed on a certain source, it is weighty, a strong presence, easily detectable. The recipient of his love may change, but the fact that he loves is a constant.
The perfectly cast Bally Gill and Karen Fishwick are outstanding as the two “star-cross’d” lovers; Gill as a young swaggerer Romeo, a character who initially seems more in love with the idea of being in love, opposite Fishwick’s endearingly feisty Juliet. Each complemented the other perfectly, and their on-stage chemistry resulted in a truly believable, wholly convincing, young couple, whose love for each other is so consuming, they are willing to die rather than continue living without each other. Their youthful innocence masterfully reflects that of Shakespeare’s original characters, starkly reminding us that they are just 17 and 13, embroiled in a sweet and tender romance that is the very definition of young love. The picture of innocence, they are caught up in this very serious feud between their families, pitching them into a situation where they are forced to make very dramatic and hasty, but very adult, decisions, taking on a maturity beyond their years.
Whyman’s expert direction also explores the relationships between other pairs of characters, most notably between Juliet and her Nurse, played here by a very engaging, and very funny, Ishia Bennison. Although it is widely acknowledged that the Nurse is something of a maternal figure to Juliet, Whyman really develops their closeness and intimacy through much physical contact, the likes of which is severely lacking between Juliet and her mother, the aloof Lady Capulet. When we first see them together, the Nurse reminisces over a time she looked after Juliet when she was younger, and it seems Juliet knows what the Nurse is about to say before she says it, and soon the two are rolling around in hysterics together, much to the envy of Lady Capulet, who watches from the sidelines. It appears as though Romeo has the equivalent of this relationship with Friar Laurence, very admirably portrayed here by Andrew French; both Friar and Nurse, older, maturer characters, act as confidantes to the young lovers, guiding them, supporting them, protecting them, and Whyman really adds a texture, a wonderful depth, to these relationships.
Whyman breaks conventions by recasting iconic male characters as female, with an ensemble that is widely more reflective of a modern society we are living in, establishing a fierce gender equality. Addressing Shakespeare’s male-dominated play, Prince Escalus, Mercutio, Gregory, Friar John and the Apothecary are recast as female, and at the end of the play, we learn that it is Lord Montague that has died, as opposed to Lady, as in the original text. Beth Cordingly’s authoritative Escalus is still referred to as ‘Prince’, showing that women are just as able to achieve, and maintain, the same high positions as men, with the ability to exercise their power just as effectively, powerful in their own right, no longer bound by gender.
Charlotte Josephine’s ballsy Mercutio has perhaps more fight in her than the men in the play and, an independent and resolute character, is not drawn in by fanciful ideas of romance. In other versions of the play that cast Mercutio as a woman, there usually seems to be some underlying hints at a possible desire Mercutio may have for another character, be this Romeo, Benvolio, or even Tybalt. However, here, Whyman asserts the fact that an excuse isn’t necessary when recasting a typically male character as a female, and Josephine’s Mercutio is a strong character that is not reliant on a male. The production therefore goes a long way to address the very notion of gender, asking whether it is really important. When the play was first published, male actors would have played the ‘female’ parts, so why shouldn’t women be granted predominantly ‘male’ parts today? Really, gender itself doesn’t have much bearing on Shakespeare’s story, its themes still as significant, so by switching it up, by playing with gender, by placing less emphasis on it, we are merely causing the play to resonate further still with audiences of today.
In the final scene, Romeo visits the sepulchre of the sleeping Juliet, lying atop the large cube, illuminated against a surrounding darkness that seeps over the edges of the stage, she appearing as a symbol of light, so often associated with innocence. Both she and Romeo were, in fact, are, innocent – such a fact echoes the harsh reality we see today; all too often are innocent people killed as a result of conflict and war, even gang culture, which frequently targets innocent people.
As the Prince utters the final lines at the end of the production, the ‘dead’ return to the stage – Mercutio and Tybalt slowly return, and Romeo and Juliet stand, both remaining atop the cube, where just moments before, they were lying dead in each other’s arms, now hand-in-hand, elevated, their souls “but a little way” above the heads of the other characters. Only in death are they united, only in death can they truly be together, for all eternity. The sad truth, although one we are confronted with at the start of the play, is that the very existence of their love demands their death.
A love that transcended the feud between their families, the Montagues and Capulets are ultimately reconciled, but it takes the deaths, the sacrifices, of these innocent children, to “bury their parents’ strife”, for them to put aside their differences, realising just how petty, how ludicrous, how pathetic, it really was. The households, “both alike in dignity”, evidently more similar than they would have each other, and us, believe, bond over their shared tragedy, over their unwitting sacrifices, the feud, not worth such a devastating cost, paling into insignificance.
In falling in love, Romeo and Juliet attempt to rewrite the stars and, although it takes their deaths for other characters to see it, their love has infinitely more power than they could have imagined – the great shame lies in the fact that they do not live to see it. However, we can take some small measure of comfort in the fact that their love won. It conquered. It beat hate down.
‘Romeo and Juliet’ is a slick, thrilling, and really quite beautiful piece of theatre, a perfect modern-day adaptation of a story that is inscribed in our hearts, as much as it is in “sour misfortune’s book”. Brought to life so skilfully, in so relatable a manner, one can but echo the final two lines, a fitting and worthy testament to so tragic a production:
“For never was a story of more woe, Than this of Juliet and her Romeo”.