August 8, 2021, by Peter Kirwan
Romeo & Juliet @ Shakespeare’s Globe (livestream)
If there’s a play that can benefit from some shaking up, it’s Romeo and Juliet. During the pre-performance materials, members of the cast and crew of the Globe’s current production spoke of challenging the idea that the play is a love story. But cultural understandings of Romeo and Juliet are deeply ingrained, and the play’s value for inciting pity and tears has a centuries-long history. Any production aiming to explore the political implications rather than the emotional affect of the play has to commit to disruption of its audience’s expectations.
Ola Ince’s production was bold in what it set out to do, at least. This two-hour, scaled-back production repeatedly challenged mimesis, and thus identification with characters, in favour of a quotational and presentational mode that asked its audience to see the characters as ciphers for larger societal issues. To do this, the production deployed several devices of epic theatre (or, at least, what often passes for epic theatre in the UK schools system; I can imagine the essays that are already being written about this production) to aim at a version of verfrumdungseffekt that might invite the audience to engage politically and intellectually rather than emotionally. The actors and musicians introduced themselves in their own names and explained who they were playing; and, as the opening brawl started, the actors spoke their character name before speaking their line, offering a description of the fight rather than a representation of it. And periodically, actors would step downstage and offer a piece of information about the experience of contemporary youth that was then displayed on an upstage screen, framing the action of Romeo and Juliet within that contemporary experience.
I’m sympathetic to the idea of the slogans, which offered an interpretive gloss on the meanings of individual scenes that invited the production’s audience to understand the play’s action in a particular light. Romeo’s (Alfred Enoch) first encounter with the Friar (Sargon Yelda) was framed by a reminder that numbers of youth centres are in decline, and that sources of support for young people are more scarce as a result. An assertion that it is dangerous for women to walk alone in the streets turned Mercutio’s (Adam Gillen) harrassment of the Nurse (Sirine Saba) into a much bigger problem. And by the production’s close, a reminder that suicide is the leading cause of death among young people asked us to see Romeo and Juliet’s (Rebekah Murrell) choices in a larger context of premature death.
The tactic of sloganeering served to disrupt the play’s narrative unity, breaking it up into segments each governed by a thematic message, and these messages invited reflection on the struggles facing young people. But the content of those messages was tonally confused in ways that felt at best muddled and at worst grossly irresponsible. Some of the slogans provided statistics and date; others offered summaries and truisms (‘It’s dangerous for a woman to walk alone’); others offered entirely banal observations. The ‘voice’ of these slogans was unclear; sometimes it had the air of objective numbers, other times it took a paternalistic or judgemental air; sometimes they might have been angry. But if there’s one thing Romeo and Juliet shows scepticism about, it’s the pronouncements of an older generation about the needs of the younger; were we expected to then take these citation-less, detached authoritative statements on trust?
The juxtaposition of the slogans with what was happening on stage was too generalist. In one of the most egregious examples, an assertion that young people with mental health problems are not getting access to the support they need – true enough – was left onstage for several scenes and served to frame the scene in which the Capulets (Silas Carson and Beth Cordingly) agreed to have Juliet marry Paris (Dwane Walcott). But the content of this scene is about the overriding of a young woman’s consent; that is most certainly not a young person’s mental health problem. And if the production wanted its audience to think about the slogans – which is surely the purpose – then they didn’t stand up to much scrutiny. Whose mental health problems are at stake in Romeo and Juliet? What did this production understand a mental health problem to be? The immediate shock value of stating an important issue didn’t then translate into a deeper understanding of what, precisely, access to therapy might offer to young people in this situation.
The scattershot approach of the sloganeering, further, tried to take on so many different issues – all of them important – that the production ended up saying very little. The more potent of the slogans pointed to reductions in support services for young people, but they didn’t go so far as to, for instance, explicitly challenge the current government’s policies towards such services (it’s unfair to level this at this production, but it’s worth remembering that the Globe provided the backdrop for the photoshoots of Rishi Sunak and Oliver Dowden after the announcement of last year’s support scheme for the Arts – how far can the Globe actually point fingers?). The note about the closure of youth centres seemed to imply that the lack of local youth leaders is a bad thing, but what are the implications of blame there – that young people need to be protected from themselves? And some of the slogans, such as the suicide statistics, seemed like a helpless shrug separated from the many different factors that might lead young people to despair. The tone of the slogans seemed to want to provoke the kind of thought that might lead to action, but instead ended up as a more impotent ‘isn’t this sad’. At the end of the production, the actors announced that ‘If you have been affected by the issues, here’s where you can get support’. The emphasis on affect was very different to where the devices initially seemed to be pointing, which might have been ‘If you think that the situations we have discussed are unacceptable, here’s what you can do’. Rather than building towards collective action, the production settled for individual feeling.
Trying to work through my reactions to the slogans meant, unfortunately, that I barely noticed the performances. The production’s heavily slashed text gave most of the cast only quite brief moments to establish themselves. The opening moments where the actors were performing their lines as quotes spoken by their characters was dropped almost immediately, and there seemed to be an overall shift across the course of the performance from a more presentational, shouty, fast delivery to a slower, more reflective, and more representational acting mode. This was in some ways mirrored by the tone of the slogans shifting from more statistical assertions at the start to a sadder tone at the end; Enoch and Murrell’s performances of the deaths were given time and weight. The emphasis on gun violence specifically in the closing scenes, though, with Romeo cradling his gun like an assassin and Juliet pushing the pistol in her mouth, felt jarring in the context of the UK.
One slogan did, however, feel in keeping with the interpretive choices in the acting, which was the remark that ’emotional neglect is a killer’. While this was one of the more banal generalisations, it spoke usefully to the disconnect between the older and younger generations, realised most potently during the Capulets’ ball. This chaotic, energetic scene was messy, with Capulet dressed as a bloody butcher and throwing up into a bucket; brassy versions of songs like ‘I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor’ performed live on stage; and Juliet articulating her own reactions to Romeo into a microphone. But Romeo and Juliet separated themselves from the party (Gemma Allred, during the Watch Party on Twitter for BSA delegates, particularly noted that the camera wasn’t paying attention to them), and Paris’s cringe rendition of Lionel Richie’s ‘Hello’ to Juliet, with its public proclamation of love, made clear just how detached the representatives of the institution were from what was actually going on for these young people.
But in some ways, this production felt precisely like it was exercising emotional neglect. I enjoyed Enoch and Murrell’s performances throughout, but the combination of severe textual cutting, the deliberate alienation devices, and the sloganeering and de-centring which seemed to keep them at a distance, all for me worked against the hard work that these actors were doing to present the characters as rounded and imbued with heir own agency. I was struck that one of the most interesting Watch Party conversations hinged on Capulet’s apparent emotional wrestling with his own agreement for Juliet to marry Paris, and individual human stories such as this emerged sporadically throughout, but became lost in the tension between character development and political detachment. Enoch and Murrell worked hard to make Romeo and Juliet much more than ciphers, much more than representatives of a generalised condition of youth, but this work felt neglected by the production.
I’m always thrilled to see a theatre like the Globe refusing to be pigeonholed, and the ideas and intentions here – to disrupt Romeo and Juliet as a love story, and to connect the issues in the play to a societal neglect of the needs of young people – were laudable. But in execution, its messages were too undirected and broad-brush to offer a meaningful or responsible gloss on the play, and the disjunct throughout between whether it wanted its audience to be sad or to take action meant that its purpose felt too diluted to be effective at either. Lots of great ideas, lots of great performances, but it didn’t lay nearly enough groundwork for the promised ‘more talk of these sad things’.
With thanks to attendees at the BSA Watch Party for sharing thoughts throughout: Gemma Allred, Benjamin Broadribb, José A. Pérez Díez, Kat Hipkiss, Anna Kowalcze-Pawlik, Liz Oakley-Brown, Ellie Rycroft, and anyone else I’ve missed.
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