Romeo and Juliet

William Shakespeare
The Royal Shakespeare Company
BBC4 and iPlayer

Romeo and Juliet Credit: Topher McGrillis
Romeo and Juliet Credit: Topher McGrillis
Romeo and Juliet Credit: Topher McGrillis

Although the television adaptation of Normal People has just concluded, the Beeb can offer viewers starved of romance the original star-crossed lovers with their broadcast of the RSC’s 2018 production of Romeo and Juliet.

Widening the appeal of theatre to attract younger or more diverse audiences is the Holy Grail of companies. In pursuit of this objective, director Erica Whyman employs techniques that are both ancient and modern and reminds us this is not just the greatest love story ever told; it is very much a tale of young love.

For the ancient Greeks, theatre was a communal event with a chorus comprising ordinary citizens. Whyman refines this approach, making the Chorus in her production a group rather than a single actor with professionals supplemented by a handful of community representatives. The overlapping voices makes for a chaotic opening which is the closest we get to an explanation of the enmity between the Montagues and the Capulets. Rather than a specific grievance, there is a sense the conflict arises from an unsettled, restless society in which characters, like rowdy drunks on a night out, roughhouse at the least provocation.

It is not unusual in Shakespeare for the first half of the play to be better than the second—the constant repeating of details of which the audience (but not the characters) are already aware is particularly irritating in this play. Whyman uses the final scenes to remind the audience of the consequences of a violent society with the spectres of those who died in act one stalking silently around the stage.

There is no specific time period or place for the play. The cast wear nondescript modern casual dress and the stage is bare except for a hollow cube that serves multiple purposes as a balcony, tomb or platform for a duel. A variety of regional accents occur—Juliet and her mother have a Scots brogue.

Whyman goes bang up to date with gender-fluid casting for the play. This is not a simple matter of women adopting masculine characteristics—the gender of the characters also changes. It adds to the sense of a society that is not only going to the dogs but is hostile to women. Juliet’s mother is visibly angry at the casual and rushed arrangements made for her daughter to be married off and the line “you men, you beasts…”, when spoken by a woman, can be taken as a condemnation of the macho culture.

Charlotte Josephine plays Mercutio (usually a hyper-masculine male) as a woman who feels she must copy the worse antics of the men in order to fit into their society. Whyman brings a degree of nuance into the production—Josh Finan‘s Benvolio is gay and attracted to Romeo who is heartbreakingly oblivious to his attentions.

On occasion, however, the effort to engage younger viewers clashes with the script. Capulet hosts a party that is closer to a teenage rave than a mature celebration.

The tender years of the title characters is apparent in the interpretation of the lead actors. Far from being a sighing, mopey Romeo, Bally Gill is a ball of adolescent energy anxious to embrace all that life offers. He makes a fine transition from class clown to exuberant lover and is something of a charmer—listening raptly to the nurse’s endless stories. Karen Fishwick shows Juliet close to being overwhelmed by the emotional turmoil in which she is captured—screaming in frustration and punching pillows in full teenage temper. The younger audience members will be able to relate to characters who show their boredom by elongating the pronunciation of words and seem baffled by the priorities of the older generation.

Although the production does not resolve the weaknesses in the play, it certainly fulfils the objective of being accessible by a young target audience.

Reviewer: David Cunningham

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