"Not all Shakespeare plays are great. I can happily never see another Romeo and Juliet
. I'd never see that play again unless there was an amazing cast or an amazing director - if Rupert Goold directed Romeo and Juliet
, I'd go." I can't remember the context or who I was talking to, but those are much the words I said a couple of months ago. Within days I was looking for shows on in Stratford for myself and aka_kelly
to see on our weekend trip, and what did I see? Rupert Goold was directing Romeo and Juliet
. Bearing in mind what I said about not liking the play, it says something that this is one of my top shows of the year so far. I want to recall a lot of detail so most of my review is going to go behind a cut in case anyone reading is planning to go; but if I were to summarise I'd say that the director who gave us Macbeth
as a Japanese horror movie, now gives us Romeo and Juliet
as a My Chemical Romance video.
That's the best I can do as an attempt to summarise the effect of the production, but to be honest rather than one overall theme it was the relentless stream of inventiveness that blew me away. The trouble with this play, it sometimes seems to me, is its reputation as the "ultimate" doomed romance. This leads to a lot of simpering and tedium. I thought that, like the heavily edited Baz Luhrmann movie, Goold might focus on the play's violence, but although he doesn't particularly stint on it this isn't his focus. It is present right from the start though: I'd warned aka_kelly
that this was a director not afraid of gore, but actually instead of blood this time Goold brings us fire as a repeated meme, and right from the start it looks like we might find ourselves in a Tarantino movie as a Capulet/Montague fight looks set to end in a man doused in petrol and burned alive until Escalus intervenes at the last minute. For the rest of the show fire (and sometimes steam) represents both passion and violence, and the extinction of a flame represents what is ever-present here, death.
There's not much point in saying that Sam Troughton and Mariah Gale are older than the lovers are meant to be, as how often do you see the title characters actually looking 14? But while they may look (because they are) in their twenties, this emo version of Romeo and Juliet convincingly come across as teenagers in their actions and emotions. Goold and designer Tom Scutt have put them in modern dress, but almost every other character is in what looks like Elizabethan dress as designed by Gaultier (ruffs and biker boots, leather tunics and neck tattoos.) This is the adult world, and the family feud, as viewed by teenagers for whom it's part of a past that bears no relevance to them. So much so, that at the very end there's a final twist on the idea: As soon as Romeo and Juliet are dead the remaining characters appear in modern dress. We're no longer seeing them through the protagonists' eyes.
What is very convincingly teenaged about them is their obsession with death, which resonates throughout. I've often said that one of the most important people in the play doesn't even appear in it, namely Rosaline whom Romeo is "in love with" at the beginning, and whom he forgets as soon as he meets Juliet, which I always see as a sign of how easily the central romance could have avoided tragedy if there'd only been another shiny thing to distract him. Here Troughton is introduced as pretty much Rosaline's stalker, taking surreptitious photos and sneakily listening to the prologue on headphones. Juliet simply gives him a requited object for his affection, and really all they're finding in each other is someone to mirror their energy and excitement in life and, by extension, death (it's no coincidence that his mask when they meet is a death's-head.) Juliet doesn't self-harm as such but she does seem very fond of knives, and it's death these two are really in love with - which makes it much easier to accept how readily they'll consider suicide as the first solution to whatever problems they face.
Sam Troughton is terrific, and helps make this a very funny production (as with any production much of the scene-stealing humour will come from Mercutio, and Jonjo O'Neill's excellent portrayal is suitably smutty, but Troughton challenges him for the most laughs) as we're encouraged to laugh at
the lovers' over-the-top emotions. Mariah Gale I found rather bland in the first part but I warmed to her after the interval. I can't put my finger on why, but the balcony scene was downright astonishing - I could actually feel my heart beating with excitement, and I can't imagine a better delivery of "what light through yonder window breaks?" As with Hamlet
, I found that making us laugh with or at the tragic figures makes their inevitable demise all the more heartbreaking. Another standout scene in the first half is the ball where the two meet, and the aforementioned skull masks are just one part of what seems a menacing, tribal dance (choreography by Georgina Lamb.)
Apart from the leads there's some very strong, and well-thought-out characterisation elsewhere. I loved Juliet's parents: Richard Katz' Capulet is downright psychotic, going from eery calm to spitting hysteria. If she's lived with this man all these years I can totally believe Christine Entwisle's portrayal of an unhinged Lady Capulet. Noma Dumezweni's pipe-smoking nurse is harder to pin down; she's funny, likeable but untrustworthy, and near the end I was inferring that she's being presented as having a drink problem.
The interval comes at the fairly obvious point when the lovers finally consumate their relationship. Even with things going so well until then I worry about the remaining scenes as I often find them to especially drag - I don't know if Goold feels the same way but he's compensated for it with some of the strongest coups de theatre yet. If the masked ball had a dreamlike quality, it's nothing to all the scenes surrounding Juliet's faked suicide, which are presented, slightly overlapping, as a relentless nightmare as Lady Capulet repeatedly runs screaming around the dead girl's bed. With his Macbeth
, Six Characters in Search of an Author
and now this, Goold certainly seems to be the master of effortlessly putting nightmares on stage. Then there's the apothecary scene, which often feels like marking time, but which here came with a "so simple, why didn't I think of that" twist of making the apothecary (Patrick Romer) an emaciated, drug-dealing junkie. Although, while both Kelly and I were sure having him and Romeo dressed identically must mean something
, we wouldn't like to venture what exactly that is.
I'm sure more things will spring out at me but this has been a long review (and more Shakespeare tomorrow!) so I should wrap up. I wouldn't be in the least surprised if this is the show the RSC chooses to send to a London run this year, and if they do I'll happily go again - and remember I'm saying this about, until now, perhaps my least favourite Shakespeare play. Oh and on a shallow note, we may have to add Sam Troughton to the uglysexy/TILF category. 'Cause along with the talent he, like the rest of his clan, has inherited his grandad's goggly eyes, and on first appearance he's no stereotypical matinee idol Romeo. But the loveable performance must have got to me because it's fair to say by the end I would. And to be fair, him being in modern dress meant jeans and I have to say, nice arse.Romeo and Juliet
by William Shakespeare is booking until the 27th of August at the Courtyard, Stratford Upon Avon.