February 19, 2021, by Peter Kirwan
Romeo and Juliet (National Theatre) @ The Dorfman, London (via Drama Online)
The National Theatre’s schools’ productions have developed in enormous sophistication over the last couple of decades, and it’s testament to their success as creative works in their own right that, not only are they getting runs at the National’s south bank base, but that two of them (Romeo and Juliet and The Winter’s Tale, which I reviewed here) have even been included in the NT Collection on Drama Online. Ben Power’s cut-down version of Romeo, directed by Bijan Sheibani, is an intelligent adaptation that respects its young audience’s ability to comprehend and invest in serious questions about parental pressure, cultural conflict and the intrusion of violence into a world that shouldn’t have to experience it.
This is London, now (well, 2017), a melting pot of traditions and cultures. The Capulets are a British Indian family, looking to make a good marriage for Juliet to the wealthy and impeccably dressed Paris. The Montagues, meanwhile, are predominantly Black and present as a street gang (the presence of an older generation of Montagues is conspicuously downplayed), mostly occupying the streets. The casting choices call to mind different kinds of generational pressures. For Juliet (Sharan Phull), in a deeply patriarchal home environment, the pressures of Jay Saighal’s Capulet are intense, especially as he erupts in fury when she shows resistance to marrying Paris. For Romeo (Nana Amoo-Gottfried), meanwhile, it’s being on the fringes of gang violence, made manifest by Mercutio (Ashley Gerlach, taking over Benvolio’s lines too) and Tybalt (Madeline Appiah), that creates the threat. Both young people are trying to define their own identities and find support, both within and outside of their cultural backgrounds.
The production invests heavily, then, in the idea of love and connection across borders. Where Capulet wants his daughter to find love with a nice traditional Indian boy, Juliet instead connects with someone who sees her as herself rather than for what her family represents. Where Mercutio gets up in the faces of both the audience (as he delivers the Prologue) and Tybalt, Romeo is drawn to someone who is not aggressive and welcomes him as himself. Understandably, given the target audience, the sexual dimensions of their relationship are played down and their clothes remain firmly on (the reaction from the school-age audience when they kiss is hilarious enough). But instead, the production invests in developing their connection through lingering touches to gentle guitar music, and a marriage scene that sees them turning circles around one another, blowing out candles and putting on rings in a mash-up of marriage rituals from different communities. In slowing everything down when the two are together onstage, the production suggests that they are creating their own language, unique to them.
But the threats of external violence never go away. When the Prince interrupts the opening brawl (staged in mime, the two sides chanting ‘Montague’ and ‘Capulet’ and swiping at empty air in a representation rather than an enactment of violence), he is accompanied by the sounds of urban policing, a helicopter whirring overhead. And on the small stage, no-one ever manages to get too far away from one another. While Romeo and Juliet are able to share intimate moments on a dimly lit stage, the same stage then quickly becomes the site of yet another cycle of violence, and Romeo – like so many young Black boys, as discussed in Akala’s Natives among many other excellent books – is repeatedly drawn back into it.
The central fight changes the tone of the production entirely. The first half is full of colour, vibrant sound, and music, the Capulets’ ball set up initially as a kind of club night (Mercutio manages to pinch a flyer) that allows Romeo and Juliet to meet on the dancefloor. The warmth and outright fun of their brief courtship, their excitement about one another, and the rush up to the wedding (including Romeo’s consultation with the amazing Sister Lawrence (Kayla Meikle), an extraordinary gospel singer leading a group in ‘Oh Happy Day’) all offer hope. But the sudden intrusion of unnecessary street violence changes everything. As Tybalt and Mercutio fight, Romeo finds himself pushed to the sidelines, and in a slowed-down sequence he grabs Mercutio by the arm, holding him back and leaving him exposed to Tybalt leaning forward and stabbing him. The representation of blood as red petals keeps things overtly PG, but perhaps more powerful for the simplicity of the representation, which culminates in a long held moment of silence that is all the more effective for the noisiness of the production leading up to it. Both Tybalt and Mercutio have their bodies outlined with chalk, outlines which remain onstage for the rest of the production, an ominous reminder of the epochal acts that change things for everyone irrevocably.
From this point on, Romeo and Juliet are acting outside of society’s constraints. There’s an ominous moment as they meet and lie down together, in between the chalk outlines; a reminder of the close association of love and death that drives the play. And then the two are separated. Romeo, in his exile, scores drugs from a hooded dealer, while Juliet shuts herself away from her abusive father and the Nurse (Tripti Tripuraneni) who is pressuring her to do what her father says. What emerges here – and what, crucially, isn’t glossed over for the young audience – is the damage done by parental and societal pressure when young people have to start engaging in dangerous behaviours in order to find their own way through. The grief shown by Capulet and the Nurse over the ‘dead’ Juliet is itself moving, and in some ways represents the culmination of an avoidable tragedy.
The production’s climax plays the deaths for maximum pathos, with Juliet reviving, unseen by Romeo, before he has drunk the poison, and he delivering his dying lines in full knowledge that she is alive before they embrace. It’s a powerful enactment of their final moments of realisation and decision, with the reactions from the audience (shouts of ‘No!’) implying the unfairness of what has happened. But in an especially beautiful moment, the two bodies are left in the centre of the stage and outlined, not with chalk, but with a heart made of garlands, symbols of marriage becoming a marker of mourning. And within that heart, Romeo and Juliet momentarily revive again, a smile splitting Juliet’s face as Romeo repeatedly picks her up and they embrace, before they lie down again, as the Epilogue is sung. It’s a gut-wrenching scene, creating more space to allow the central relationship time to resonate, to let the bodies of Romeo and Juliet themselves rather than the people who knew them, speak to what has been lost.
In situating the family tensions in a contemporary multicultural London, the production acknowledges the adult concerns that even young children may need to be familiar with and prepared for, from the pressure to join gangs to the weight of familial expectation. It’s a production that implies that a lack of tolerance and communication between generations is destructive, while also acknowledging the difficulty in avoiding conflict. And in its winsome leads, it sets up the idea that there might be ways to break out of these cycles of pressure and violence, but perhaps only if people slow down long enough to truly see one another.
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