Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre, Europe’s first ever pop-up Shakespearean theatre, has been erected in Tower Street, York, for the summer of 2018. Four of Shakespeare’s greatest plays are being performed in repertory over the course of ten weeks – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth, Richard III, and Romeo and Juliet. Although a construction of modern engineering, the theatre resembles an Elizabethan playhouse and, a charming addition to the beautiful city of York, this intimate venue allows these plays to be performed as they would have been 400 hundred years ago.
The theatre’s world-class production of ‘Romeo and Juliet‘, directed by Lindsay Posner, is a faithfully accurate adaptation of Shakespeare’s well-known play and, shrewdly modernised, the production is the very quintessence of what makes for great Shakespearean theatre. Reaching the heights of some of the best and most iconic of Shakespearean productions, but doing so with an individualised sense of modernity, this oft-performed play here seems something new entirely.
From the offset, the conflict between the houses of Montague and Capulet is realised – actors storm the stage, characters brawling – and the audience, impartial spectators, are immediately immersed as this feud, a key theme of the play, is given appropriate attention, the threat of violence all too real. However, action is paused, halted, interrupted, when two large wooden doors at the back of the stage open, revealing our two young lovers, Romeo and Juliet. Straight away, we see the power of the love of these two, in its ability to hinder the violence between their two houses, an early foreshadowing of how it will later put an end to the feud completely, rendering any potential for further hostility as null and void.
Together, Romeo and Juliet walk forwards towards the front of the stage and, rather unusually, deliver the prologue themselves, alternating between lines. Thematically, fate plays an integral role in this play, so much so that it appears to become almost an omnipotent character itself, the orchestrator of the story. However, having Romeo and Juliet deliver the prologue themselves suggests that this is very much their story and, though their future might be destined, written in the stars, they make clear from the start that they are far from unwitting, hapless victims, born along by fate, their own will playing no part in what is about to occur. Instead, they are ready and willing to fight back, to write their own destiny, to act according to their own decisions. Later, Romeo will emphatically deliver the line, “Then I defy you, stars”. The two consistently display this burning desire to exercise their own free will, in this battle against fate – a battle that is not unlike that between their two households. However, unlike that literal conflict, in that between fate and free will, free will is destined to lose. Despite the desire of Romeo and Juliet to break free of their destiny, the inescapable truth is that, try as they might, they cannot. They will not.
The Capulet ball is certainly a highlight of the piece, and not just for its dazzling costumes, each character wearing an element of fancy dress – be it Roman leader, Egyptian Queen, angel, devil, or joker – that, in many ways, reflects the personalty of the wearer. Loud and boisterous when the Montagues initially crash the party, and begin dancing, the noise fades and the dancing slows when Romeo and Juliet first set eyes on each other. Juliet is dancing with Paris when Romeo spots her and, as Paris swings her out, their eyes lock, and the world around them as good as stops as, in that split second, we spy a kind of awakening in these two lovers, who come alive under each other’s gaze, eyes bright and smiles shining. Even when Paris pulls Juliet back into him, she keeps glancing over her shoulder to look back at Romeo, who doesn’t seem to have moved from that spot, his gaze fixed, unwavering. It is in that moment, that look, however brief, that their worlds change, setting in motion a chain of events they are powerless to stop, one that will ultimately end with their deaths. In fact, one might go so far as to say that it is their love that causes their deaths – their violent delights, have violent ends.
The characters of Romeo and Juliet are played to unparalleled perfection by Alexander Vlahos and Alexandra Dowling – they are the very embodiment of everything these characters stand for, and everything they symbolise. Very much making these characters their own, however, putting their own stamp firmly on these roles, they simply refuse to become just another pair of overly dramatic courtly lovers, who over-react to events and, blinkered to reason, die when, in reality, their deaths might be avoided. Both characters seem predominantly more substantial, more human, more complex, than those portrayals we are so used to, giving them infinitely more depth, that prevents them falling into the category of the stereotypical.
Their first exchange, rather than Romeo’s bumbling compliments and Juliet’s meekness we see so often, becomes something of a flirtatious battle of wits here. Romeo confidently, yet genuinely, throws Juliet a compliment, and she is quick to pick up his puns, throwing them right back. Although Romeo initiates the first kiss between the two, it is Juliet who steps in towards Romeo and kisses him the second time – straight away, we are not presented with yet more images of Romeo’s fickle love, that latches itself onto one unwitting victim after another. Instead, both characters act in kind here, and we see this mutual desire, that affects both equally.
Despite the fact that, in many respects, Romeo and Juliet are very mature, sometimes beyond their years, we are constantly reminded of their youth, in their bouts of childish innocence, and their tendency to hover on the verge of becoming dramatic. David Fleeshman’s Friar Lawrence, and Julie Legrand’s Nurse, are able to provide reassurance, comfort and guidance, their years lending themselves to their experience and maturity, particularly in dealing with tragedy, and the two act as grounding forces for Romeo and Juliet. For example, on hearing the news that he is to be exiled, banished from Verona, Romeo, in hiding at Friar Lawrence’s cell, drops to his knees and weeps, blubbering. In his eyes, banishment is worse than death – for to be parted from Juliet, the centre of his world, is torture. When the Nurse enters the cells and sees him, she barks at him to “stand up” and “be a man”. When Romeo and Juliet are acting on impulse, ruled by their emotions, blinded by love, it is Friar Lawrence and the Nurse who are able to take a step back, to assess the situation and come up with a solution, to make decisions from the head, rather than the heart, to rise above emotion, and act rational. However, the fact that Juliet fails to mention her plan to her Nurse at the end of the play suggests that perhaps she has reached a point where she is willing to make her own decisions, no longer seeking the guidance of another. Before Juliet takes the sleeping draught, she hugs her mother, a moving touch, testament to her familial love and respect. Juliet is fully aware she will never see her again, fully aware of the consequences of her actions, and fully accepting of her own decision.
Shanaya Rafaat’s Mercutio is unforgettable. A female character here, she seems to harbour certain romantic feelings herself towards Romeo. During the character’s memorable and passionate ‘Queen Mab’ speech, Mercutio kisses Romeo, yet he not only pushes her away, he proceeds to wipe his lips, as if to erase her kiss. Later at the Capulet’s ball, she begins to dance with Romeo, and once again, he pushes her away. Her presumption suggests that perhaps, once upon a time, the two may have shared some form of romantic attachment, however now, her love unrequited, perhaps hints at some reason as to why she publicly mocks the very notion of love, and her anger towards Rosaline for not returning Romeo’s feelings.
Rafaat’s Mercutio is certainly a troublemaker – not only does she engage in conflict, she actually does so little to avoid it, one might go so far as to say that actually, she seeks it. For instance, when Tybalt challenges Romeo to a duel, Romeo, having just married Juliet, explains that he must love Tybalt, for reasons that are, at present, unclear to all other characters, and he seeks to pursue a peaceful course. BOTH characters turn, and begin to retreat. However, Mercutio’s face changes and, whether fuelled by her desire to uphold Romeo’s honour, by love for him, or simply by her own desire to engage in conflict, it is she who calls Tybalt back, who taunts him, who provokes him, who spits in his face, fully aware of how he will react. Very confrontational, and very passionate, her tendency to mock, to insult, ultimately sees her killed, and she becomes yet another character killed as a direct result of the quality that distinguishes her.
Edward Sayer’s Tybalt is rage personified – like a coiled spring, often speaking through gritted teeth, he seems to be angry with very little, or no, basis, taking offence at any slight, even when unintended, on the part of the Montagues and, deaf to peace, always looks for an opportunity to wreak vengeance. He is the polar opposite to Tom Lorcan’s charming Benvolio, the embodiment of righteousness, who actively tries to pursue peace, and quell conflict.
This production makes it clear that the play’s characters, Romeo in particular, fall prey to desperation, and therefore often act without reason. During the iconic ‘balcony scene’, Juliet acknowledges the suddenness of both her own and Romeo’s declaration of love for each other – and yet, the two arrange to be married the next day. Such impulsiveness continues to be present throughout the production, most notably in Romeo’s murdering of Tybalt, and later, Paris. After Mercutio’s death at Tybalt’s hand, when Tybalt returns to the stage, the two fight, and Romeo shoots Tybalt in what seems like a split-second, Romeo appearing to act almost instinctively. Later, in the Capulet crypt, Romeo kills Paris blindly, not fully aware even of who he is killing. In both cases, however, Romeo instantly regrets his decisions, and we can see just how much he is pained, such is the extent of the character’s remorse. A passionate character, a character ruled by passion, it is such passion that all too often gets the better of him.
There is a marked difference in terms of the tone between the two halves of this production. The opening half has, predominantly, a humorous, light-hearted tone. However, what begins as seemingly playful, playground-like banter which, in the grand scheme of things, is fairly insignificant, conflict escalates, until it becomes something really quite dangerous, as is clear towards the end of the opening half, when two youths, and it’s important to remember that they are only young, are killed as a tragic consequence of this feud. Even Mercutio, laughing and joking after she has been stabbed under Romeo’s arm, soon acknowledges the gravity of the situation as, in much pain, fighting to hold back tears, she bitterly curses the two households, their petty feud the cause of so much needless anguish, suffering, bloodshed, and death, before she is carried upstairs and offstage, where she too is added to this tragic death count.
The level of audience interaction within this production is notable, making it more accessible, more personal, to those in its audience, who are utterly engaged throughout, More is thus elicited in the way of audience reaction, which the cast skilfully acknowledge, and judge, using it create even more comedy, gaining an even greater reaction. The cast expertly play to the humour already present within the text, exploiting and enhancing Shakespeare’s comedy with their masterful command of timing, filling gaps between dialogue with the most outrageous gestures and facial expressions that generate much laughter from the audience. For example, when Romeo is hung up over Rosaline, Benvolio promises to present other beauties to Romeo. After looking around the audience, Benvolio points to a member of the crowd, but Romeo is quick to furrow his brow and turn his nose up. On exiting, Benvolio then apologises to the crowd member. During the balcony scene, Romeo seems to address the audience as much as he does himself. Sat on the steps leading up to the stage, Romeo appears to seek advice from the audience, asking us whether he should interrupt Juliet, announcing his presence, or stay quiet, and hear more. When he eventually steps up onto the stage, he quickly turns on his heels, holding his arms up, telling us that he is too bold, before returning to his former position on the steps. The cast also enter and exit several times throughout the crowds of groundlings, those watching the performance from a standing position, and in this way the production, as with those performed in Shakespeare’s day, maintains that traditional level of immersion.
The innuendo contained within Shakespeare’s text is also exploited, and frequently developed, in the production, leaving absolutely no room to doubt their inference, possibly due to greater freedom, and acceptance, concerning certain topics in today’s society. For example, when Juliet rests her head in her hands, Romeo releases a deep sigh, and declares his wish to be a glove upon her hand. Although both sexually inexperienced, they seem to have awakened this passion within each other, opening their eyes to the desires of the flesh, and heavily suggestive hints at such desires are present throughout. When Juliet mentions a certain part belonging to a man, we know what she means. When she asks Romeo what satisfaction he could possibly have that night, he turns to the audience, suggestively raising an eyebrow and shrugging. We know what he means. When Mercutio asks Romeo, “How art thou fishified” (although this phrase literally means that she believes him to resemble a fish at that moment) she leans in and sniffs his crotch. We know what she means. The cast take an already suggestive quote and, through their performance, make it even more provocative. The production is resolute in its ability to mine the humour of Shakespeare’s text, and attribute to it an adult maturity, to the point where these characters cease from becoming the genteel, tight-wearing characters of earlier generations, and seem to represent more closely the generations of today.
In this very sleek, very sophisticated production, the language of Shakespeare, so familiar to us, is delivered so uniquely by the cast, to the point where it seems almost unfamiliar. Although the beauty of the original text is still present, accurately so, the cast certainly make the language their own, playing with such things as pace, tone, and pausing, so that it seems like we are hearing this material for the first time. The fluidity of the prose and poetry of the piece is broken, pace is changed, becoming more reflective of natural conversation, modern dialect and modern intonation. Lines that perhaps didn’t resonate with an audience member may do so now, whilst the more popular lines become almost unrecognisable. As a result, hidden depths of the text are explored, excavated, but the key themes remain constant.
Being an Elizabethan-style, open-air theatre, as with the Globe, set becomes difficult, the very nature of the theatre restricting what can be done. However, Lee Newby’s design creates the facade of the streets of Verona. Wooden crates are piled next to a bicycle, chic tables and chairs reflect the outside of an Italian cafe. Alongside Sue Willmington’s stunning costumes, quite possibly a nod to the fact that Italy has long been seen as one of the fashion capitals of the world, ensure the production is both elegant and sophisticated, providing a beautiful backdrop to this beautiful story.
‘Romeo and Juliet’, one of the greatest, yet most devastating romances, suitably performed in this most romantic of settings in York is, quite simply, perfection. A production to rival Baz Luhrmann’s iconic 1996 film version, this ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is a precise, finely-tuned and trendy play, that fully realises Shakespeare’s genius.
An adaptation the Bard himself would be proud of.