January 26, 2019, by Peter Kirwan
Juliet & Romeo (Lost Dog) @ Nottingham Playhouse
What if Romeo and Juliet escaped the crypt together? Lost Dog’s dance production is not the first to explore this question, but perhaps offered one of the more innovative approaches to answering it. This two-person show (plus, at this performance at least, the outstanding BSL interpretation of Clare Edwards) invited its audience into the therapy room with a long-married Romeo and Juliet for whom bliss felt like a distant memory. Having tried several attempts at resolution, their therapist had suggested a new idea – performing their memories for an audience, in the hope those memories could reveal something about the present.
Through dialogue and dance, the 75-minute show revealed what had happened: they had fled the country, bought a flat and tried to settle into married life. At some point, William Shakespeare (a mate of Friar Laurence’s in this reimagined contemporary world) came and chatted to them about their life, and created a best-selling play out of it, cementing the legend against which the real Romeo and Juliet’s own mundane life would be forever measured.
The production was thus double-edged. On the one hand it was a hilarious desanctifying of Shakespeare, poking fun at the play’s melodrama and situations; on the other, it was a surprisingly harrowing account of a marriage in decline, not through dramatic disasters, but through the slow attrition of two people simply being fundamentally unmatched. The use of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘The Sound of Silence’ as they arrived at their new flat was enormously important in this respect, with its summoning of the final scene of The Graduate as two people impulsively run away for a life together only to be slowly confronted by the enormity of the unknown ahead of them. As they sat together and asked questions (‘What’s your favourite food? Mine’s chicken korma’ ‘I’m a vegetarian’), it was clear that they hadn’t the faintest who they were to one another.
The choice to stage the memories precisely as memories allowed for a self-consciousness of what they showed. At the start, this worked to hilarious effect. Solène Weinachter as Juliet was fully bought into the exploration; Ben Duke’s Romeo far less so, and he regularly missed his cue to agree with her, seeming passively drawn into the memory-making (the BSL interpreter’s presence added further levels of comedy as she rolled her eyes at him and exaggerated his reticence). As they began performing their first meeting – he enacting a wonderful sense of being pulled across the floor against his will in a series of swaggering gestures to The Beatles ‘I Want You’, she instructing him to glide to her while Cat Power’s ‘Wild is the Wind’ played – the differences in their memories were already instructive. Then as they finally met and performed a stunning ballet, the sound of Prokofiev’s aggressive ‘Romeo and Juliet’ already foreboded something more combative than romantic.
Part of the problem was that Juliet’s whole-hearted approach to the fantasy turned out to be indicative of something already wrong in their marriage. She ‘remembered’ Romeo entering the crypt, and forced Romeo to repeatedly go out again and come in faster; then she remembered Romeo dancing with her unconscious body. Despite the fact that present Romeo insisted this never happened, Juliet insisted he perform it, and (to the beautifully ironic sound of Des’ree’s ‘Kissing You’) he performed a parody of their earlier ballet with a hilariously limp and heavy Juliet dragging across the floor. Set-pieces such as this showed off the dancers’ skill, but also set up the unevenness of their relationship.
Part of the issue was that the pressure of their history had already driven them apart. Juliet was mesmerised by Shakespeare’s play, and nightly asked of Romeo that he perform their death scene with her. Juliet’s own experience of married life was devastatingly quotidian, and Weinachter performed her despair with funny and moving grotesqueness as she told narratives of their child weeing on her and captured the stress of lone parenting in her daring admission that she fantasised about how much sleep she might get between throwing her child out the window and the police arriving. As she screamed at Romeo as things came to a head, ‘I was meant to be exceptional!’ – and losing herself in Shakespeare’s version of their story helped her feel that again. For his part, Romeo was emotionally distant, entirely overwhelmed by the choices they had made. In an early admission while Juliet couldn’t hear, he confessed that while in the crypt, thinking that he could never live without her, he suddenly came to the realisation that – actually – he probably could. His flight with Juliet committed him to a life with someone he could easily have walked out on, and so he showed no commitment to the relationship, zombie-ing through obediently but with no proactivity, and crucially abandoning Juliet to look after their child.
The physical sequences portrayed their collapse with beauty and form-defying skill. When they arrived at their flat, they again performed a ballet, but here they couldn’t make it work. They connected with each other in the wrong ways, knocked over furniture and a microphone, writhed along and beneath one another in movements that were sexual but distant simultaneously, unable to connect. Romeo’s emotional withdrawal exploded outwards in an extraordinary and aggressive solo to ‘That’s Life’, and his attempts to cheer her up after a miscarriage that left her devastated and still involved a routine and trivial bop to ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’. Romeo didn’t have the emotional competency to support Juliet; Juliet had too much passion to be stifled by Romeo’s undemonstrativeness. While the characterisations bought somewhat into national stereotypes (the reserved, unavailable Englishman; the tempestuous, dramatic Frenchwoman), the differences meant they simply couldn’t connect.
James Perkin’s design trapped the characters within a completely inoffensive therapist’s room, an environment that constrained both characters, especially Juliet; both at times tried to climb the cage-like wall at the back. This also committed them to a pattern of needing to respond to one another. Early, Juliet asked Romeo ten questions (ranging from ‘How often do you watch porn?’ to ‘Who would you sleep with if I died?’ to ‘Do you think I’m stupid?’); an hour later, Romeo finally answered them with gut-wrenching honesty (including his sincere assertion that he had never, never, thought of her as stupid).
The event which pushed their marriage to collapse involved him standing outside the door, listening to his wife (along with their child) cry, and choosing to leave and go and get a Twix so that for half an hour he could pretend she didn’t exist. The abandonment of his family at a moment of crisis was abhorrent. And yet the production also dramatised effectively the walking nightmare of someone trying to perform a love that he didn’t feel, always compared to a version of himself who performed the act of supreme love that he himself was incapable of performing. Yet while the production had sympathy for this, his complete cowardice in the face of those who needed him was crushing, and watching Julilet long for poetic death as having more meaning than her own existence was devastating.
The production finally saw Romeo, struck by the news of her having slept with someone else, finally enacting what he wished he had done years ago, rewinding through his life back to the start of the Cauplets’ Ball, to the last time that he could remember having no idea who Juliet even was. The complete effacement of Juliet from his memory – far more upsetting than an open fight – ended their marriage on a cold note, and pleasingly he then yielded the stage to Juliet for her to stand alone, listening to and mouthing the words of ‘Wild is the Wind’. For all the production’s humour and clever demythologising of the most over-told story of all time, the finality of the loss of their story after such a long period of attrition created a sadness that, for me at least, lasted a lot longer than the show itself.