these are the abstracts of my time
It’s forty years since I studied Romeo and Juliet at school and since then I have seen quite a few productions of it. It’s a play that particularly lends itself to new, innovative ideas and has been most memorably re-invented on film by Franco Zeffirelli and Baz Luhrmann. However, it is a regrettable fact that I have been disappointed by some very dull and insipid renderings on stage. Perhaps the story line is too well known, or perhaps the beauty of the writing on the page overwhelms some directors, but it seems to be all too easy to get it wrong.
Imagine my joy, then, to find that Romeo and Juliet has a spring in its step once more. Yesterday evening I saw a preview of Headlong’s latest production, directed by Robert Icke, and a very fresh and self-assured piece of work it is.
If we are to believe the Prologue to the play, Shakespeare was planning for this drama to move along at a hell of a lick (it is described as ‘the two hours’ traffic of our stage’) and Robert Icke has matched the Bard’s expectation by creating a production with the pace and urgency of a thriller. From the very outset, the digital clock projected onto the back of the stage is literally ticking. The posters bill this as a ‘whirlwind romance’ and it certainly lives up to that description, as scene rushes into scene and, at crucial moments in the plot, scenes are spliced together so that they appear to be happening simultaneously (most memorably, the two scenes in which Romeo and Juliet separately learn of Romeo’s banishment). I actually felt my own heartbeat changing pace as the romance accelerated towards tragedy.
If you are thinking that this means that the purity of Shakespeare’s tale of young love is lost, you would be wrong. Daniel Boyd, as Romeo, brings a captivating freshness and vigour to the part, particularly in the balcony scene, much of which is played with Juliet on stage and Romeo in the auditorium – a clever way of engaging the audience’s empathy. His limpid delivery of the verse put me in mind of Al Pacino’s praise of Mark Rylance: ‘[he] plays Shakespeare like Shakespeare wrote it for him the night before.’ Boyd’s performance successfully convinces us that Romeo is a young man whose previous experience of love was that of the doting, unrequited kind and here, before our eyes, he suddenly discovers that breath-taking miracle: ‘to love and be loved in return‘. Catrin Stewart as Juliet seems similarly at home with the verse and enables us to believe in the mixture of coyness and bold spontaneity that Shakespeare has written for the adolescent bride. She perfectly paints the picture of innocence, ardour and impetuosity that is needed to fuel the emotional heart of the play.
The design of this production is, in many ways, true to the theatre of Shakespeare’s time: the shape of the thrust stage is much like that of the Globe, with little in the way of scenery but frequent use of a balcony area at the back of the stage and, underneath it, a ‘discovery space’ from which a bed is pushed forward (this configuration being characteristic of early modern playhouses). On the other hand, the use of projected images and rock music (‘A Town Called Malice’ and ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ are two tracks that most of us could recognise) makes this a production that will be accessible and relevant to a wide audience. Indeed, before the play begins, the stage looks more like a screen at a multiplex cinema than a theatre set. Contemporary dress and a twenty-first century ambiance about the mood and behaviour of the characters combine to give this production a bang-up-to-date feel.
Perhaps the major trope for this production is based on Romeo’s line ‘O, I am fortune’s fool.’ Director Robert Icke cleverly plays on the role of chance in the outcome of the plot by rewinding and replaying some sections of the action. (Icke has clearly picked up some ideas from his boss, Rupert Goold, Headlong’s Artistic Director, who also used the replay technique when he gave us two differing views of the banquet scene in his 2007 production of Macbeth at Chichester.) The point of this, I think, is to show that each element of action can prompt different outcomes, depending on relatively random choices made by the characters. For example, when illiterate Peter is chosen to deliver party invitations, Icke shows us that, if someone who could read had been selected for the job, he would never have asked for Romeo’s help, so Romeo would never have gone to Capulet’s party. Similarly, we are presented with the possibility that Romeo may not have seen Juliet at the party, or that Capulet may not have allowed Paris to persuade him to hasten his wedding to Juliet. If you are familiar with the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, you might think that Icke is not content just to tell us Shakespeare’s version of events: he also wants to send us spinning off into all those other worlds of possibility where the stars cross these lovers in completely different ways.
It would be unjust not to mention some of the other actors in the thirteen-strong cast who make this a production with no apparent weak links: Brigid Zengeni has all the teasing humour and vivacity that works perfectly for the nurse, while Tom Mothersdale’s Mercutio is as mercurial as his name might suggest; Benvolio is played by Danny Kirrane, an affable ‘best mate’ who ably narrates the gaps to keep the storyline cogent; and Keith Bartlett and Caroline Faber are thoroughly convincing as the Capulet parents whose marriage is on the rocks, due in no small part to the passionate attachment of Okezie Morro’s Tybalt to his aunt. (If ever you have wondered what’s eating Tybalt, here’s your answer.)
If I have any criticism of this production, it is that the final scene seems to have been cut rather too severely. As Shakespeare wrote it, there is a certain amount of ‘faffing about’ in the graveyard during which Romeo meets and kills Paris. The dramatic purpose of this is to increase the period of time during which the audience knows what Romeo does not know – that if he faffs about for a bit longer, Juliet will wake up and all will be well. The tension built up by this delay tends to increase the pathos of the lovers’ deaths. In my opinion, this production marginally loses out on this final psychological twist of the knife by rushing a little too headlong into the final climax. Nevertheless, it is impossible not to recognise that Robert Icke is a young director who has big ambitions, together with the talent required to achieve them.
I saw this production at the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton. This week: Salisbury Playhouse; next up: Cambridge Arts from 6 March; and touring until April 7. I predict that this will be a hot ticket, so don’t miss it.