Romeo and Juliet
The Tempest had been in North Marine Park; Romeo and Juliet was to be in South Marine Park. Ray suggested the bandstand, which seemed reasonable to me, so I went to take a look.
There’s the bandstand itself, a space in front of it, and, immediately opposite, a wide set of stone steps leading up to the next level of the park. We couldn’t, I thought, perform in the bandstand because the rail around it would obscure the actors and would distance them from the audience and, as with The Tempest, I really wanted them to be as close to the action as possible, so I went, yet again, for a traverse in the space between the bandstand and the steps. The bandstand would be the approach to the Capulets’ home and the stairs to the Montagues’.
(This time we had tiered seating on both sides and proper Portakabin changing rooms! And a vendor selling hot dogs, burgers and chips parked up right next to the performance area—a development much loved by audience, crew and actors alike! And me. Obviously.)
Other ideas started to develop. I wanted a real distinction between the Montagues and Capulets so I went for a modern setting making the Montagues an established, not quite aristocratic (but friends with the aristocracy) family. Old money.
The Capulets, on the other hand, were nouveaux riches, with Capulet still showing that his status is new-found in his speech (his Geordie accent) and his desire not to rock the boat when his nephew Tybalt wants to challenge Romeo at the party. I saw Lady Capulet as the trophy wife, younger and more upper class.
I decided, too, that Mercutio should be a woman. This was partially because I thought he was in love with Romeo and whilst, in Shakespeare’s time, a homosexual dalliance between young men was not unusual, in the modern day there would be too much LGB baggage (this was in 2010 when the full LGBTQ+ thing we know today was just in its infancy), and partially because a female Mercutio would fit perfectly into the ladette culture which was on the rise at that time.
It also helped that I had an actor in mind who would be perfect in the part, Viktoria Kay—and she proved to be so when I did cast her, with one critic comparing her to the “Roaring Girls” of the 1920s.
To add to the modern vibe (Oo, get him!) I decided that I wanted a hip-hop feel to the fight between the Montagues and Capulets at the beginning so I approached Newcastle-based but Northern Irish in origin Bad Taste Cru and Bboy Doke (Connor O’Kane) undertook the fight choreography (and bloody brilliant he was too!) while Ken Masters DJ-ed and rapped the opening speech (“Two houses…”). I had it spoken normally after the rap, which, in retrospect, was a mistake. But we all make ‘em!
But what about Juliet?
Never one to miss a good publicity opportunity for the Customs House, Ray Spencer decided that we would hold open auditions for the part—all welcome, whether professional, amateur or with no experience whatsoever.
That was a long, hard day! I didn’t just want to hear them read; I wanted to see if they had actually read the play and thought about it, so I asked them to tell me all about Juliet.
You can probably guess what the vast majority said: “Sweet and innocent.”
Oh no she isn’t! Spoilt brat is closer. She wants her own way and is going to get it!
There was, it has to be said, little doubt about who to cast. Rachel Teate had clearly read the play and understood the character, and it showed not just in the answer to the question but in the way she read—‘superb’ is the word which best describes it. It helped, too, that, although she was 22, she looked 13 or 14.
(And I was proved to be right: she went on to have a successful career on TV and on stage and, after taking time out to be a full-time mam, is now starting to work again.)
There were some newcomers to the cast but the majority were the same as in Tempest—the start of a Customs House Shakespeare Repertory Company!
And after one performance, I met this wonderful 11-year-old girl whose mam (a local actor who wasn’t in the cast) had taken her to see the RSC production at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle and who thought our production was much better! A girl of impeccable taste! And now, quite a few years later, she has become an accomplished actor in her own right, following in mother's footsteps!.
And it never rained once—during the show anyway. A couple of times we had to dry off the seats because of rain during the afternoon, but that was it!
Another success! Next year—the Scottish play!