Robert Icke, director of Headlong Theatre’s new touring Romeo and Juliet, has clearly been taking notes from company director Rupert Goold. As with the last Headlong show I experienced, King Lear, everything up to and including the kitchen sink (in this case, an open air ice-cream stall) had been thrown at the stage, not all of which stuck. This was a production that judged its target teen audience perfectly and offered an inventive, often irreverent and fast-paced version of the play, but too often at the expense of nuance or coherence.
To my mind, the difference between ‘concept’ and ‘gimmick’ is in the coherence with which a device is used. The core innovation for this production was a Sliding Doors “what if?” approach. A digital clock hovered above the stage, displaying the exact day and time. Five times during the production, an alternative was shown – the initial Capulet/Montague brawl not occurring, Romeo and Juliet not meeting, Paris not staying to woo Juliet. Then, a bank of lights blinded the audience (unnecessarily painfully, I should add) and, when visibility was restored, the cast had resumed their positions and the action played through a second time according to the known play.
This device began interestingly, and the first three times the pivot was always Daniel Hooke’s Peter, whose ineptitude with a cigarette lighter, clumsy drinks service or care for a set of bags enabled the action to progress as planned. However, the connection with Peter was dropped for the second half, destabilising the device’s anchor. Similarly, it set up a level of expectation – when Peter was introduced into the Tybalt/Mercutio brawl, one expected the same device and felt robbed when it didn’t happen. More significantly, several of the ‘restarts’ were simply uninteresting. While Paris’s decision whether or not to continue wooing Juliet has an impact on Juliet’s decision to follow Friar Laurence’s plan, it’s a dramatically inert scene to have to sit through twice. The gradual fading out of this action, along with the rather mundane anchoring of the action to “real” time, meant that the device never felt fully integrated, having only an aesthetic and immediately attention-grabbing implication. The slow drawl of a cover of the Boomtown Rats’ “I Don’t Like Mondays” as midnight approached on the Monday of Tybalt’s death and Romeo’s banishment was very funny, however.
More coherent, and interesting, was the production’s emphasis on the youth of the characters. Daniel Boyd’s Romeo gave what I can only assume was a deliberately adolescent performance as Romeo, with a voice consistently on the edge of breaking and movements entirely made up of arms and legs, with no centre of gravity or balance. Flopping around the stage, it was a performance that I found quite difficult to watch: the whining of a schoolboy, combined with his constant movement, grated and lacked anything to anchor it. The production seemed to want this of him, though, offering critical commentary on his fickleness in love and his mood swings between violence and romance. Catrin Stewart’s Juliet was better, albeit still pitched at too fixed a level for the majority of the performance, turning off her headphones only in order to shout her sincerity loudly at the audience (literally, as she stood on the bed to go through the possible consequences of the Friar’s drug). Together, the two demonstrated an immature and idealised notion of love – incapable, unconsidered and unplanned.
Despite the whooping of the young audience at the removal of shirts, this was a sexless central relationship, as the emergence of the lovers from their bed still with most of their underclothes intact reminded us. The aggressively chaste culture of the Twilight series has imprinted itself heavily on recent Romeos, to the play’s detriment, and the finest moment of connection between the lovers was their quiet collapse onto each other as Romeo died, pulling Juliet across on top of him. However, their youth was thrown into relief by the gravity of the older players. Simon Coates was a deep voiced Anglican priest as Friar Laurence, first seen giving a lecture (with slides) to the audience. His controlled stance and carefully modulated voice gave him an authoritative presence. Brigid Zengeni’s outstanding Nurse, meanwhile, was all innuendo and laughter, injecting real personality into her scenes as she fondled Juliet, drunkenly whispered warnings to her charge during the party and barked orders at Peter. In Zengeni’s hands, Stewart became the ideal childlike ward, the older woman fondling the teenager’s hair as if still a young girl. In one standout sequence, the scene of the Nurse reporting Tybalt’s death to Juliet was juxtaposed with the Friar consoling Romeo, during which the two lovers were forced onto the bed that sat centrestage for much of the production while the two older actors walked in circles around it. This simple staging, conflating and juxtaposing two scenes, expertly demonstrated the dynamics that drove the youngsters towards destruction.
Better among the younger actors were Danny Kirrane as a superlative Benvolio and Tom Mothersdale as Mercutio. Kirrane’s portly Benvolio was addicted to chips (even eating one with Tybalt’s drool hanging off it) and a lovable loser in the Superbad vein. Less quick-witted than his friends, his laughter always came slightly too late, and his attempts at peacemaking saw him instantly pushed aside. When drunk at the party, his face moved beautifully between vacancy and giggling. Mercutio, meanwhile, was wired and energetic. The Queen Mab scene, played in darkness apart from handheld torches, saw him go to a dark place as his words ran away with him. Constantly on the brink of losing control, he pulled off the tricky job of remaining engaging while also being clearly the provocateur in the major struggles.
The first half was primarily about comedy. The party scene was played as a typical house party, with youngsters in fancy dress sitting drinking on external staircases, and Capulet getting merry on his own wine. The sexual banter between the young men was enthusiastic, though reliant on excessive groin grabbing and thrusting. The balcony scene, meanwhile, saw Romeo jumping up and down in eager delight, a puppy with a new toy. Yet a slightly darker edge was offered early on as Juliet was revealed to already have a knife in her bed with which she threatened the intruder on his first entrance.
The pivotal brawl between Mercutio and Tybalt very nearly ended without incident, as Romeo apologised to Tybalt and the angry Capulet drew breath and walked offstage. Mercutio, however, screamed after him and began playacting as a mocking cat. Then, as Tybalt again attempted to leave, Mercutio ran up behind him with syrups stolen from the aforementioned ice-cream cart and poured them on Tybalt’s head. Tybalt turned slowly, snapped over his switchblade and, in a very quick confused scuffle, the incident ended. Mercutio, Benvolio and Romeo stood upright for a long time, delivering the lines as jokes, until Mercutio finally took off his shirt and revealed a huge bloodstain that drew all three up short. Mercutio only belatedly realised his own hurt, and his closing lines were spoken quietly as he was half-supported, half-dragged offstage.
The second half gave way to the more domestic story of the Capulets, which offered a few interesting decisions. While Keith Bartlett’s Capulet was played quite broadly, positioning him as the bombastic tyrant, Caroline Faber’s Lady Capulet was quiet and often moving. It was established early on that their marriage was deeply unhappy, and Lady Capulet was seen downing cocktails at the party and then kissing Tybalt passionately. After his murder, she became increasingly unhappy and expressed her sorrow by lashing out, as in her shouted demands that the wedding be postponed, which Capulet considered with a pause before ignoring entirely. The chasm between the two grew during the family conflict scene, in which Capulet threw Lady Capulet away from him forcefully, leaving her sobbing but also unwilling to defend Juliet. The deep problems of this family offered a sobering contrast to the high energy and sexual jokes of the first half, and Juliet now resorted to the knife with more serious intent, threatening to open her wrists before Friar Laurence.
At this point, Tunji Lucas’s Paris became more important. In a horribly intimidating scene in Friar Laurence’s cell, Paris adopted an angry air of assumption with Juliet, insisting that she declare love for him and forcing her face into his for a kiss. The actor towered over the diminutive Juliet, and the physical aggression of this moment was quite chilling, allowing for a parallel to be drawn with Juliet’s parents. The desperation of the character was handled fittingly by Stewart, and culminated in a visually striking dream sequence after taking the drug, where she remained sitting upright in bed while the projected faces of her parents and the Nurse appeared in overblown proportions on the upstage wall, speaking across each other and dissolving into a frantic montage. She remained onstage, eyes open and wavering, while Benvolio appeared to report her death to Romeo.
The final image was of the two lovers lying together onstage while Capulet and Montague shook hands at a televised press conference on a balcony. With plenty stripped out (the initial discovery of Juliet’s body; Paris’s death; the arrests of Romeo’s servant and the Friar; the recapitulation of everything that had taken place), this was a sudden ending and a visually neat one. The production failed to say anything particularly new about Romeo and Juliet, and rather took the easy way out with its superficial stylings, its crude humour and a resort to teen-pleasing bare chests and innuendo, rather than a mature engagement with the sex and violence at the heart of the play. There’s no substitute for strong central performances and a command of the text, which too many productions of Romeo sorely lack. However, it clearly played well to its target audience and, in several of the supporting performances, offered a pacey and varied reading that kept the play, if not timeless, then at least temporarily contemporary.