Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Romeo and Juliet ~ Royal Shakespeare Company

For one reason and another I spent most of last week in Stratford including, on Saturday, going to see the RSC's current production of Romeo and Juliet in the newly rebuilt main theatre. I am not going to go into what I think about the new theatre here, mainly because no one is going to want to read a rant. Surfice it to say that I think they made a mistake trying to put a new stage in the old theatre building. They should have pulled the whole lot down and started afresh. It's too late now to do anything about it, so I'm just going to have to learn to live with it.

The production of Romeo and Juliet, is however, worth revisiting. It started out last year in the Courtyard theatre, the Company's temporary home a hundred yards up the river bank and I very much enjoyed it then. During the intervening year it's consolidated its better points and dealt with some of the problems and is now a very polished theatrical experience indeed.

I always feel with this play that there are no half measures. You are either going to like the way the director decides to approach the production or you are going to hate it. I have seen more performances of Romeo and Juliet that have left me seething than any other play in the canon. In fact it is the only play I've ever walked out of and I've lost count of the number of times I've wanted to stand up about twenty minutes in and say to the uncomfortable looking cast something along the lines of "Okay, you've got this wrong, haven't you? Shall we go back to the beginning and try again?"

But when a company get it right it can be so good and Rupert Goold has brought this production together very successfully, although I'm not sure it is for quite the reasons he intended. There are a couple of very erudite essays in the programme, one about the Counter Reformation and the other an exploration of suicide in the arts, but although they are both extremely interesting they don't signal what is, for me, most obviously successful about the interpretation. The production works for me because they have managed to find a way of exploring a universal aspect of human nature in a way that keeps it firmly rooted in Shakespeare's time and yet also ties it to our own. For what is the quarrel between the Montagues and the Capulets but a sixteenth century manifestation of gang culture and even more specifically, knife crime?

For the most part the play is presented in Elizabethan Verona, but it begins with a streetwise twenty-first century youth, complete with hoodie, listening to a recorded tourist guide. This is Romeo and the costume choice works as we slide into the sixteenth century setting partly because of the colour and the materials chosen and partly because of the Universal nature of the teenage uniform of tee-shirt and jeans. When Juliet appears in something very similar, she works in both time periods as well. And that is all it takes to bring home to you the disturbing fact that one tribe of teenagers, turned against another tribe by elders who ought to know better, are exactly the same now as they have ever been. Whether it is on the streets of Renaissance Verona, or amongst the tower blocks of modern day London, the murder and mayhem that is unleashed is terrible to behold.

A second feature of the production which helps to hammer home this disturbing fact is the attention that has been paid to ensuring that the lovers come over as very young teenagers. I don't know exactly how old Mariah Gale and Sam Troughton are, but I would have thought early thirties and yet they both manage to communicate that frantic, explosive switch from one extreme of emotion to the other, that is  the hallmark of teenagers everywhere. Gale in particular does the sulky thirteen year old so well there are times when you want to slap her. And the fact that you know wouldn't be the sensible way to handle the situation is neither here nor there. Like all the 'best' teenagers, she just gets to you.

The production closes in Stratford very soon and I'm not certain if they are taking it anywhere else, but if you do get the chance to see it then it's worth looking out for. The new season gets underway next month with Macbeth, A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Merchant of Venice. I know they have to fill the theatre, but it would be nice to break away from the obligatory exam texts once in a while. I wonder when someone is next going to be brave enough to give a season of Timon of Athens?

PS. Sam Troughton is a very good actor, but I find it hard to forgive him for making me feel very old indeed. I remember watching not only his father, but also his grandfather. Damn him!



  1. Moving out of easy travelling distance from Stratford is something I do regret. I'm sorry about the new theatre - I had hoped it would have been an improvement.

    The next Shakespeare company to visit Berwick is the Lord Chamberlain's Men with Midsummer Night's Dream - do you know anything about that company?

  2. Hello Annie,

    Unfortunately, you are not alone, I can remember Sam Troughtons grandfather as well!!

    Shakespeare isn't really Dave's idea of a great night out, although we both enjoy live theatre entertainment, albeit the much less challenging genre of the musical.

    Having recently been up to London to see the stage production of 'Wicked', a family group has now secured some great seats for Les Miserables, in May. We have seen this show so many times, but it never fails to stir the emotions, even in my teenage nieces, who were only small children when they saw it for the first time.

  3. Margaret, I've heard about this company, aren't they all male and trying to put on the plays as close to the way Shakespeare's Lord Chamberlain's Men would have done? I haven't seen them though, so I can't comment on their success. If I can find anyone over at The Institute who knows anything about them while I'm there this afternoon I'll get back to you.

    Yvonne, I saw 'Les Miserables' when it was first produced at The Barbican and I've loved it ever since. A really great show.

  4. Sounds like a brilliant production Annie. I agree that Romeo and Juliet can be very poor if produced badly, and I have seen quite a few of those sadly. I have never been to Stratford, which knowing my background you may think bizarre. It is a hole in my life I am determined to correct some time. I have been to the Globe in London though which was fun.

  5. Sounds like a wonderful production. Midsummer Night's Dream is the play that I seem to have seen multiple productions of that are either good or very very bad. I remember one terrbile one where they had a small pool on stage that some of the actors would gaze into now and then there was one scene towards the end of the play where every actor on stage ended up falling into the pool. It was supposed to be funny and it would have been if only one person had fallen in, but everyone? And can I just say how envious I am that you are so close to Stratford that you can regularly attend plays there?

  6. Leah, I'm glad it's not just me. I was beginning to think that I was jinxed where 'Romeo and Juliet' was concerned, or perhaps expecting things that just weren't possible. If you ever do get down to Stratford, I hope you'll let me know you're coming.

    Stefanie, believe me, Stratford is not immune to appalling productions, even if they are the RSC. But, having said that, I do know how privileged I am to have such easy access not only to the theatre but also to the university department based there and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and all their resources. If you ever find yourself over here, I'll be more than glad to show you round.

  7. Oh, I miss my Shakespeare. Our prime Shakespearean company, the Bell Shakespeare Company. comes here every year and we went annually for several years - two families each of us with two kids. It was a read treat. But a few things happened one year and somehow we've got out of the way of it. Must get back to it.

    As for the Royal Shakespearean Company, I have a very fond memory of a visit of theirs downunder around 1970. (Now, that's talking about age - of course I was a precocious theatre goer!) I saw, I'm sure I'm right about this, Judi Dench in The Winter's Tale and Twelfth Night. Special!

  8. Yes, WG you're right about the productions because I saw those as well! She was Viola and doubled up as Hermione and Perdita. They were both absolutely magical. The 'Twelfth Night' set the standard by which all other 'Twelfth Night's' et measured (and are usually found wanting!) and 'The Winter's Tale' was after 'Hair' with a wonderful score from Guy Woolfenden, which I can still sing today. As your own wonderful Peter Porter once wrote, 'When daffodils begin to peer, watch out, paranoia's round the bend.'