March 26, 2010, by Peter Kirwan

Romeo and Juliet (RSC) @ The Courtyard Theatre

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From its very opening, Rupert Goold’s new Romeo and Juliet was intent on forcing its audience to view a familiar play afresh. Sam Troughton’s Romeo, in jeans and hoodie, wandered onto the stage with a camera, taking photographs as if a tourist (though this amateur stalker had a different kind of attraction in mind) while listening to an Italian-language tape that repeated the Prologue in both Italian and English. As Romeo saw his Verona anew, so too were we asked to throw aside our usual attitudes to Romeo and Juliet and rediscover the play.

The opening statement of intent pulled few punches. The brawl between Capulets and Montagues quickly accelerated against a background of Catholic candles and projected flames. Capulet and Montague themselves engaged in a protracted broadsword battle while their wives scratched at each other’s faces; servants tussled with a variety of improvised weapons, sending up jets of smoke from the stage as they struck each other; and finally, in a wonderfully powerful moment, the stuttering Benvolio turned to see Joseph Arkley’s Tybalt, with heavy Scottish brogue, emerge as if from Hell itself, through the iron bars and flames. Striking a match, Tybalt threw it to the floor, provoking a firebolt to roar up in Benvolio’s face. This monster proceeded to tie Benvolio to a stake and smother him with petrol, and the makeshift cremation was only prevented by the last minute arrival of Escalus and a barrage of fire extinguishers.

Heat and fire pervaded the production, from the bloody rage of Romeo’s later murder of Tybalt to the passionate flames between the young lovers. It was well suited to a rare production of the play that had genuine emotional clout at every level. Goold’s Romeo and Juliet was a tragedy of impetuosity, uncontrollable passion and instinctive decisions that saw its young protagonists running headlong towards destruction.

This was perhaps best realised in Jonjo O’Neill’s spectacular Mercutio, in a performance one can only describe as "unleashed". Dashing in cape and peroxide blonde hair, O’Neill really was the gentleman "that loves to hear himself talk" (II.iii.138), running off his long speeches with a frenzied energy that at times became terrifying in its vehemence (Oliver Ryan’s twitchy Benvolio spent much of his time looking at his friend aghast). Repeatedly lost in self-delusion and performative narcissism, O’Neill received spontaneous applause for several of his set-pieces, most notably a hysterically hideous interlude where, calling for the hidden Romeo, he began miming Romeo’s copulation with Rosaline. Getting engrossed in his own thrusting action, the simulacrum became more violent and ecstatic, before Mercutio mimed actually crawling inside Rosaline and began an entirely surreal Alice in Wonderland parody which saw him taking tea with invisible strangers and squelching around in vaginal juices before, in a paroxysm of terror, rushing to escape and "rebirthing" himself into the world. Appalling to describe, it nonetheless had the audience quite literally collapsing in the aisles. His mockery of the Nurse, meanwhile, became an improvised music hall routine culminating in his screaming of "WHORE!" in her face followed by a slapstick chase around the stage. This character existed beyond the boundaries of normal social behaviour, his reckless excesses rendering him at once entertaining and extremely dangerous. These extra-textual performances did threaten to unbalance the production, which invariably struggled to recover following his grand exits, but served the larger purpose of destabilising the story and making it unpredictable once more.

O’Neill’s performance was also part of a concerted effort to make the play funny once more, particularly in the first half. From the opening disarming of the Capulets and Montagues, where Capulet laid down a veritable arsenal of personal weaponry concealed about him, to Mercutio’s brandishing of a bicycle pump against Tybalt and the Nurse’s flirtatious treatment of Friar Laurence, there was plenty to laugh at in this world. Grown-ups were as impulsive and reckless as their children; and while this was a source of comedy, it was also a source of great pathos. A breakfast scene between the Capulets was a highlight as Mariah Gale’s Juliet was berated for defying her father. In dressing gown, Richard Katz cut an initially comic figure as Capulet before bringing out a terrifying intensity and violence against his daughter: throwing water at her, screaming in her face and leaving her sobbing on the floor. These were not the stock actions of a stage tyrant, but the all-too-believable bullying of a recognisable father. Even more upsetting was the sight of Christine Entwistle’s Lady Capulet in the same scene. Fabulous in her earlier appearances at the Capulet’s ball, Lady Capulet was badly hit by the death of Tybalt, and Entwistle transformed into a dewigged, chain-smoking manic depressive, bitter at both family and foes and careless of her daughter’s anguish. Following these, Noma Dumezweni’s Nurse encouraged and comforted Juliet, giving the impression of care but then going on to tell her to take a second husband. Between the three, then, Juliet was attacked physically by her father, passively by her mother and insidiously by her Nurse, driving her to a peak of despair that finally broke forth as she stood in Friar Laurence’s cell, pressing a knife against her chest and screaming for release. The potential of this string of action in the hands of good actors was fully realised here, investing the audience in Juliet’s plight.

The casting of Gale and Sam Troughton as the titular lovers was perhaps the production’s best decision: rather than prioritise the appearance of youth and pluck actors straight out of drama school (which has been the killing blow for so many recent productions), the RSC recognised that experienced actors can act young, while also having the far greater range earned through years of performing Shakespeare. Gale’s Juliet was marvellous, a teenager beginning to become confident with her body and public image but also prone to regressing into childish habits when cornered. She danced a wild and charged dance with masked revellers for the benefit of her father’s party guests and was confident enough to kiss Romeo in the centre of the throng and then leave him hanging for more; yet in only the next scene she was kicking her heels while sitting on the ledge of her balcony, a child once more. Juliet was, in the best possible sense, not an innocent child: she knew what she wanted and how to get it, but her insistence on doing things properly and not rushing positioned her as the partner thinking of the long term.

Troughton’s Romeo, meanwhile, was a creature of instinct and immediate gratification. Every time he kissed Juliet he made to start taking off his clothes, and had to be restrained by her. His inconstancy in changing affections, and his overdramatising of every situation, was lightly mocked but sympathetic, treated as the inevitable state of youth. This Romeo had at least one eye constantly on the heavens; racked by internal conflict (right from the start, a physical tic had him pressing a finger hard into his temples, as if suffering constantly from a superfluity of thoughts) and external, he addressed Fate, gods and the stars as a matter of course, relating his own suffering to its universal significance. As a counterpart to Mercutio, he was similarly preoccupied with the extremes of emotion and understanding, and his speed of action and speech left him little time to think. His stillest moment was at the close of the long first half: with murder, marriage and banishment all behind him, he finally approached Juliet’s balcony, climbed up and embraced her, the lights going down as they began to consummate their marriage. This moment of stillness was pivotal to Romeo. When we next met him in exile, his greeting of the news of Juliet’s death was met in relative calm and his subsequent actions were desperate but considered. Sex, for this Romeo, was the moment of growing up.

Among the minor characters, some of Goold’s decisions worked better than others. The decision to have Gruffudd Glyn’s Balthasar deliver his news of Juliet’s death in a broken falsetto song was tonally disruptive: it was presumably meant to be a ritualised moment of mourning, but instead had the audience laughing. Far better was the decision to clothe Patrick Romer’s Apothecary (the second time he’s played the role for the RSC in the last five years) identically to Romeo, the two hooded men mirroring each other as they exchanged their respective poisons. Dyfan Dwyfor’s Peter was comic and elegantly dressed as a page, but pleasingly not made ridiculous. James Howard’s Paris was dignified, and David Carr’s Escalus brought a strong sense of personal emotion into his pronouncements.

Dumezweni’s Nurse was a strong comic presence throughout the play, self-possessed and sassy whether helping to dress Lady Capulet or flirting in a mask at the Capulet’s Ball. She even enjoyed Mercutio’s initial taunting, until his excesses incited her to physically threaten him. The tenderness between her and Juliet made her final "betrayal" of her ward the more heartbreaking from Juliet’s perspective. This relationship neatly mirrored that of Romeo and Mercutio, whose earlier likeness made Mercutio’s condemning of the two houses the more powerful. Stabbed by a retracting blade concealed in Tybalt’s glove, the humour of his dying situation never left him, but as he staggered backwards up a flight of steps (ascending towards the bright lights of the afterlife), his growing distance from Romeo at ground level physically realised their irrevocable separation.

The same flight of steps led down to the Capulet’s tomb for a well-performed finale. Aside from toying with the audience by having Juliet stir behind Romeo’s back before he drank the poison, the emotion of the dual deaths was effective, particularly as Juliet stirred to find Romeo’s head in her lap but point-blank refused to accept what she saw. Forbes Masson’s Friar Laurence (very strong throughout) stood at the top of the steps pleading with her to leave, but the blocking meant she could see nothing but the head of her beloved in her lap, at which she finally, emotionally, broke down.

In an intelligent final twist, the mix of Elizabethan and contemporary costume elements that had run throughout the play was exchanged in the final moments for a deliberately uniform modern mundanity of dress. Balthasar accompanied Romeo to the tomb in full Elizabethan dress, but was brought back by the police in a hoodie and trainers. Police detectives with radios descended into the tomb, accompanied by the Capulets and Montagues in everyday clothes. This simple visual shift translated the melodramatic tragedy into the kind of news story that we’re all familiar with, as parents tried to make sense of something they had no way of comprehending. Romeo and Juliet lay frozen, out of time, but to their parents the paint was entirely present, and for the disillusioned and pessimistic police officers it was even routine. Our youthful excesses and romanticisation of suicide and drama may lead us to tragedy, but the results of those tragedy are neither romantic nor dramatic. Where Romeo anticipated universal significance in his death, he received only a domestic mourning from his grieving parents. It was this that seemed to be the ultimate point of Goold’s reading, a downbeat end to a powerful production.

This review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.

Posted in Theatre review