February 21, 2019, by Peter Kirwan
Romeo and Juliet (RSC) @ Nottingham Theatre Royal
An entirely unexpected fight broke out at the RSC’s Romeo and Juliet last night, and it wasn’t on stage. As several audience members took action to remonstrate with and ultimately eject someone who was expressing their disapproval for the production’s choices, many other audience members found themselves missing the meeting of the lovers. And when Bally Gill’s Romeo ran in for the start of the balcony scene from the auditorium and jumped up, a shadowy figure onto the stage, a series of shrieks indicated that I wasn’t the only one who assumed it was the banned audience member returning to wreak their revenge on the theatre.
The sideshow fitted surprisingly well with a production that managed to inject an unusual amount of surprise into an all-too-familiar play. In its emphasis on youth and bravado, Erica Whyman’s production stressed the unpredictability and impulsiveness of the play’s characters, and the kneejerk reactions to the unexpected. Pleasingly, this had the effect of making the play’s actions feel natural, developing the characters as relatively well-rounded individuals who happened to be going through something extraordinary.
Much of this rested on Gill and on Karen Fishwick’s Juliet, as two convincing lovers who had clearly developed networks and histories. Gill was lairy, demonstrative, and full of humour; much more closely aligned to Charlotte Josephine’s similarly exuberant Mercutio than Josh Finan’s diffident Scouser Benvolio. Gill and Josephine drove their scenes with a great deal of energy, bouncing jokes back and forth and engaging in easy physical banter with one another (Romeo kissed Benvolio full on the lips at one point). Josephine’s Mercutio, clearly female but deilberately performing herself as masculine, was aggressive and provocative, and Romeo was caught between the competing poles of Mercutio and Benvolio, treading a middle ground that made it excitingly difficult to predict quite how he would respond to a given situation.
Juliet, meanwhile, was associated with a more cossetted existence. While not spoiled, she enjoyed an unusually close relatoinship with the Nurse (Ishia Bennison), an entertainingly dirty-minded and quite savvy operator. The two curled up in a single upright chair, constantly embracing, while Mariam Haque’s Lady Capulet, played relatively young, looked awkwardly on. The proxemics (and Ayse Tashkiran’s movement work was a highlight throughout) told a clear story here, especially when Lady Capulet came in for the most awkward of hugs. The downtrodden Lady Capulet both loved and resented her daughter, but barely seemed to know her; the Nurse, on the other hand, had Juliet’s full trust, which made her eventual betrayal of her (spoken while the two women held one another tightly) all the more upsetting.
The love relationship played out with unbridled joy. During the balcony scene, Romeo moved constantly back and forth from the concrete block which served as the production’s continuously changing set, a bundle of contained energy who nearly jumped up and down in delight at hearnig Juliet’s words. Romeo remained at ground level throughout, the two reaching for one another and building up to a prolonged two-storey kiss, but more than anything the two seemed overwhelmingly happy. That joy turned quickly to despair, and Fishwick in particular nailed the later emotional scenes, her monologue as she prepared to take the potion deeply conflicted and scared. As she took the potion, it took a long time to take effect, leading to an impressive and tense scene as she slowly lost the use of her limbs before collapsing into a chair. And while the final death scene was disappointingly contained to the top of the concrete block, making it rather difficult to see, the two sold their sense of loss as profound and quiet, accepting of an absolute end rather than performing histrionics.
The inter-generational conflicts illustrated a sense of danger and threat among the older members of Verona’s society that was emulated by the younger. Beth Cordingly’s Escalus was a powerful, loud and authoritarian Prince who nonetheless seemed quite absent, sweeping onto the stage and immediately storming at people, in a way that perhaps inspired fear rather than respect. The heads of the two households also modelled aggressive behaviours. The Montagues were gender-reversed so that Sakuntala Ramanee’s Lady Montague was the main instigator of violence, pulling a hidden knife from her sleeve, while Paul Dodd’s Montague tried to hold her back. And Michael Hodgson was a fearsomely unpredictable Capulet. During his rage at Juliet, he adopted a bizarre series of stop-start actions, reversing direction in odd ways across the stage, throwing Juliet down, clapping his hands randomly. It defied easy interpretation at the level of individual actions, but his performance took up an enormous amount of space, leaving the three women cowering for cover and unable to anticipate what he would do next.
The younger generation, working within a framework which anticipated and provoked violence, seemed to be trying to step up to it. Mercutio in particular seemed to feel she had a lot to prove, but herself became unpredictable. During the Queen Mab speech, she suddenly began railing bitterly and furiously against male aggression, holding the Montagues to account in a way that spoke back to their earlier parades of masculine agency. She seemed especially keen to fight Tybalt, played by the understudy Nima Taleghani. While I would have liked to see the intended Tybalt, who would presumably have been less awkward in the fight scenes, Taleghani gave an impressive depiction of a man out of his depth, wearing his knife holster openly and just begging to be challenged. He paced the stage slowly, both in life and after his death as a ghostly presence, and set up a standard against which Mercutio in particular fought. Their fight was initially with fists, then became more serious.
The production was oriented around a large hollow concrete block, which created a fixed locus that switched between representing Juliet’s bedroom (on top), the Friar’s cell (with garden on top and interior below), the Capulets’ tomb (on top) and elements of the Capulets’ house and the street (below). The structure created two simple levels but also a lot of flexibility for people appearing above (Tybalt during the relatively well-rendered nightclub party scene) and for transition between higher and lower levels. At Friar Laurence’s cell, meanwhile, the back shutters opened to reveal a tall vertical slither of greenery that initially rendered his area a place of peace, but increasingly felt distanced from everything else.
The production’s weakest element, partly for what felt to me like its tokenism, was the introduction of a community youth chorus to speak the prologue, and to appear at various intervals to lay flowers or stand witness to the conclusion. The messy opening sequence felt like watching a sixth-form production as each person took it in turn to say a line, then everyone spoke across one another, then repeated the entire prologue. While the presence of more bodies on stage contributed to the impression of a public issue at the play’s conclusion, there didn’t seem to be a strong interpretive rationale for the random appearance of these children, and their presence distracted from rather than developed the production’s interest in youth. Of more obvious interpretive interest was the reappearance of the ghosts of Mercutio, Tybalt, Paris, and (somewhat oddly) Montague, who together turned the concrete block upon which the ghosts of Romeo and Juliet rose, gazing out at the audience as Escalus spoke her condemnation, asking the audience to reflect on what had happened.
But the production remained consistently interesting in its amusing and offbeat readings of lines, whether in Raif Clarke’s petulant Peter mouthing off silently at the Nurse when ordered away, in Juliet’s dismissal of Paris, who creeped horribly over her at Friar Laurence’s cell, and even in Romeo’s highly gestural condemnation of the moon, overshadowed by Juliet’s beauty. It managed the difficult trick of making Romeo and Juliet feel like a play performed for the first time, which over a year into the production’s run is no mean feat.