Romeo and Juliet
Royal Shakespeare Theatre
We nearly always go to the previews of the plays at the RSC and we have yet to go to one directed
either by Gregory Doran or Erica Whyman which isn’t completely ready for public performance.
I enjoyed this brilliantly paced production, splendidly directed by Erica Whyman, for many reasons. It
was great to see characters who are the age Shakespeare intended. You can believe that Juliet (Karen
Fishwick), talking ten to the dozen, is fourteen and her mother (Mariam Haque) twenty eight. Romeo
(Bally Gill) is also a convincing teenager with streetwise swagger, rapid changes of emotion,
impetuosity and body in perpetual motion. It is also refreshing to see a modern production which is
contemporary. It is dominated by gangland culture where the races and genders are mixed and knife
crime is rife. I think it’s most inventive of Whyman to present iambic pentameter and rhyming
couplets as characteristic of rap-like street culture; the form of language itself becomes myth. And
Romeo’s purchase from the apothecary makes clear that drug dealing is in contemporary cities a
response to poverty and threatened destitution.
You can see that although Shakespeare calls the feud an ‘ancient quarrel’ it is passed down from
generation to generation. Tybalt’s irrational belligerence is mirrored by Capulet in his vile and
abusive treatment of Juliet. In that scene you can easily imagine Lord Capulet in a street gang fifteen
or twenty years previously. The verse is well delivered throughout but the language and rhythms are
from the street. Splendid. There is impressive attention to detail, too. Don’t miss (as most of the
audience did when I saw it) the dumb show with Romeo and Juliet in bed together during the interval.
I had not noticed before how Lord Capulet talks about Juliet in the third person even while she is
present. The most highly political and social statement comes at the end of the play where the dead
walk among the living and where there is little understanding of how to change the world except by
splitting and violence – timely for me in week where the irrational President Trump took on Iran,
alienated Europe and was busy cosying up to North Korea.
Tom Piper’s set is simple. No need for the RSC to spend loads of money just for the sake of it when
the play is what we have gone to see. There’s a big cube with an open face which can be turned roun
as which deals with all the location changes prompting the thought that no matter who is involved and
wherever it is taking place the same things recur. There’s a small ladder, some ladders on the outside
of the cube and an armchair which is carried on and off. It’s all the more effective, therefore, when
after Tybalt’s death red candles, red roses and a red shroud are brought on. The complete lack of
unnecessary frills is demonstrated when the dead Tybalt is placed on the shroud which is then pulled
easily off stage – far more effective than trying to heave a sizeable Tybalt (Raphale Sowole) off by
muscle power. The music composed by Sophie Cotton, too, is contemporary and effective in creating
moods. The rock music at Capulet’s feast, with its undertones of energy and anarchy, creates
wonderful prolepsis and dramatic irony.
There are some subtleties of characterisation, too, all of which make sense of some of the problems in
the play. Rather than gloss over it, Whyman deals with the behaviour of Lady Capulet. She is faced
with a dilemma: she loves her daughter but is scared of her husband. She knows that he will react
violently towards Juliet when she refuses to marry Paris; that is why she leaves Juliet to him. It is for
her own survival that she sides with her husband. Paris is gentle, loyal and charming, genuinely
distressed at Juliet’s death. That is why he visits the monument at the end. Friar Lawrence (Andrew
French) is also interestingly characterised. In a different way from the street gang members he, too,
acts on the spur of the moment. All his decisions are made because he has just thought of them. This
is a clever choice because he’s just like Romeo, really. And one of the real problems of the text is
what to do with Mercutio and how. As a female gang member this Mercutio, played with
extraordinary physicality and energy by Charlotte Josephine, tries to outmale the gang’s males but
suffers in the end for it .The Duke, too, is female, striding on stage in her sharp suit and shoes and
making pronnouncements which sound authoritative but do little to solve society’s problems. We
cannot avoid thinking of our present Prime Minister. In this way Whyman invites us to think about all
the females in the play and their places in their society. And if we do that she has forced us to reflect
on contemporary Britain.
We are also invited to think about class, ethnicity and background. It becomes clear that some
members of the lower classes such as Balthasar (Tom Padley) have unfailing loyalty to their masters
in refusing to leave the monument even when instructed to do so, unlike Friar Lawrence who flees in
fright in order to save his own skin. Whyman gives the one illiterate character in the play a West
Indian accent. Lady Capulet and Juliet have Scottish accents. Benvolio a northern one. The Nurse
(splendidly played by Ishia Bennison), having escaped from her position merely as a wet nurse, has to
side with her masters in telling Juliet to marry Paris because she needs to keep her job. The black
characters, like the white, have a range of accents.
I feel I haven’t done justice to the depth and sophistication of the problemisation and interrogation of
the text which Whyman has undertaken. It is a play about extremism and impetuosity. It is a study in
false logic. It is truly contemporary with much to say about a multi-ethnic society. I have seen it
twice already and I am looking forward to seeing it again.
Romeo and Juliet