The desire to cast Romeo and Juliet as young as possible is deep-ingrained in theatre directors. In Dominic Dromgoole’s new production for Shakespeare’s Globe, for example, the actors playing Juliet, Benvolio and Tybalt all make their professional stage debut. It’s an ongoing risk: the potential gains in youth and energy need to be weighed against the potential disadvantages of an inexperienced cast carrying weighty roles.
Ellie Kendrick’s Juliet presented a perfect example of many of these strengths and weaknesses. I had the impression that she may have had a cold, but her meek Juliet was often difficult to hear even from my position leaning on the front of the stage, often seeming to forget the need to project when speaking to actors standing next to her. Her movement, too, was oddly stilted, her arms in particular hanging limp when not actively engaged in gestures. Yet there was a raw vulnerability and intensity in her performance that came through tremendously in times of trouble: as Ian Redford’s volatile Capulet attacked her for her disobedience, she quailed before him, prompting her mother and nurse to physically step between the two to protect her. Kendrick’s Juliet was a fragile thing, a believably young girl babied by her nurse. For this reason, she had to put every ounce of her strength and will into her relationship with Romeo, learning as she went along and leaving herself with nothing else to hang onto. Upon Romeo’s death, there was simply no reason for her to carry on living: she was invested entirely in a dead man.
Dromgoole’s production was full and fast, including both choruses as well as most of the servant and musican scenes. These took on a framing role around which the production was structured. The consort group of four singers (Jack Farthing, Graham Vick, Fergal McElherron and James Lailey) entertained the crowd with period folk songs before the performance began, including one re-worded to act as a warning of the perils of using mobile phones or cameras during the performance, and in doing so set up Romeo and Juliet itself as a folk song, a timeless story to be told and re-told. This reading was supported as the same consort group reappeared as musicians and choruses throughout, underscoring key scenes with laments or love songs and interacting with the rest of the company in a host of minor roles (Peter, the Apothecary, Friar John etc.). This had the further impact of keeping an actor-audience dynamic alive and explicit throughout the production, inviting us to engage with the play as a tale.
The single most interesting character reading came from Philip Cumbus as a Mercutio who appeared to me to be suffering from severe depression. Lively he may have been, but his liveliness was bitter rather than joyful, a deep-rooted misery prompting him to rail on the world. The Queen Mab speech reduced him to tears as he complained of the nothingness of dreams, and his drunken screaming for Romeo, initially boisterous and amusing, ended up as a sad, quiet series of pleas to his absent friend. Romeo’s obsessions with love had torn him apart from his friend, who was irreconcilably struck by the loss, and his final betrayal by Romeo, holding his arms while Tybalt stabbed him, was all the more poignant for it. Jack Farthing’s Benvolio, on the other hand, was the wilder of the pair, a public school boy type reminiscent of Hugh Laurie’s George in Blackadder Goes Forth. Benvolio took childish delight in crude humour, phallic thrusting and jokes about sex, but had little of the wit to come up with them himself. He therefore hung on Romeo and Mercutio’s every word and laughed loudly to show he understood the jokes, then engaged whole-heartedly in physical miming of sexual activity at every opportunity.
Capulets and Montagues wore the usual red/blue colour scheme to differentiate them, although in a nice touch Romeo and Juliet changed costumes after the balcony scene, defiantly adopting each other’s colours for their own use, and thus marking their newly-minted separation from their own families. Romeo’s bright red doublet and hose, however, fired Tybalt’s anger even further, he taking it as a further insult to his people. Ukweli Roach’s Tybalt was particularly strong, an angry young man frustrated by the constraints of politeness enforced on him by Capulet. His final battle with Romeo was physically brutal, the two both losing their swords early on and instead scrapping with hands and nails. Romeo’s bloodlust rose, and in addition to stabbing Tybalt he throttled, kicked and beat the body until finally dragged away by Benvolio.
While there were no extensions of the stage into the yard as with many of last seaon’s productions, a large square balcony had been constructed, jutting out from the gallery space and over the main stage. While obviously serving for the balcony and bedroom scenes, the use of the higher level was most effective in the final scene. A spiral staircase led directly down from a hole in the balcony, which was covered with a grate as Juliet’s body was laid on a bier centre-stage. The effect was to turn the entire main stage into a basement crypt, while Romeo and Paris entered on the upper level, their fight occurring in the much narrower balcony area and climaxing with the wounded Paris falling down the spiral staircase into the tomb. This simple staging worked well, conveying the impression of a dark below-space with minimal effort.
Much of the play’s comedy came from Tom Stuart’s Paris and McElherron’s Peter. Paris, in this play, was a socially inept and pretentiously false youth, with very little sense of social propriety. 3.4 opened late at night, with Paris bright-eyed and apparently settled in for the night and the Capulets looking at each other with weary eyes as Paris failed to respond to the hints of “’Tis very late.” His ecstatic hug of Capulet after his agreement to their engagement was similarly nearly followed by an embrace of Lady Capulet, who managed to hold him off at the last minute by extending her hand for him to kiss instead. Peter, meanwhile, was a constant ball of energy: screeching lines, acting out the names of the invited guests as Romeo read out his list, turning even the smallest act into a drama, all to entertaining effect. This Peter was particularly self-conscious of his role as entertainer, all but elbowing other characters in the ribs to get them to laugh at his jokes, and his regular appearances accelerated the play’s pace.
Adetomiwa Edun as Romeo imbued the character with an extraordinary amount of energy, enough to allow the audience to forget his melancholy very quickly – even in his first scene describing Rosaline, he found humour in his own moans. During the balcony scene he was constantly mobile, skipping around the stage in delight, unable to contain his excitement. While there was never a sense of the sexual element of their relationship, Edun compensated for this with his buoyant enthusiasm and good-natured devotion to his younger partner. As he prepared to leave after their night together, he surrendered with good grace to her pleas to stay, his “Come, death, and welcome; Juliet wills it so” a genuine offer to remain with her in defiance of all external forces.
The play moved at a fair lick, moving quickly past moments lingered on elsewhere. Graham Vick’s excellent Apothecary, for example, exploded up from a stage trap like a morality devil, peering out in answer to Romeo’s summons, and was played with an earthy dignity, the exchange businesslike and ominous, then over in a moment, the Apothecary disappearing once more into the bowels of the stage. The impression given in these final scenes was therefore one of providence and inescapable fate: poisons were miraculously available, letters unforeseeably went astray. As the play moved towards its final resolution, the pace never let up, both Romeo and Juliet’s deaths being the instinctual and emotional responses to the very moment rather than drawn-out affairs. In this, the play became a more relentless tragedy than I’ve often given it credit for, beautifully brought out by Rawiri Paratene’s Friar Laurence in the crypt, the one character still desperately fighting against the onslaught of time, panic-stricken yet unable to influence anyone.
The traditional final jig was beautifully done. The Prince’s final words were answered immediately in song, as the chorus began a lament for the dead lovers. As the rest of the cast joined the stage, the bodies slowly came to life, voices rising in a swell before the tempo suddenly doubled and a joyful final dance began. These redemptive jigs fit beautifully at the end of tragedies, and was enthusiastically received. A decent start to this year’s “Young Hearts” season, and definitely one of the better Romeos I’ve been fortunate enough to catch.