Romeo and Julie (National Theatre) @ The Dorfman Theatre

While almost any new play or film featuring two lovers kept apart by external forces risks being associated with Romeo and Juliet, it’s rare that one signals the connection in its title as boldly as Gary Owen’s Romeo and Julie. What’s more surprising is that the connections between Shakespeare and this play are so loose that the title actually does Owen’s play something of a disservice. Yes, there are two young people meeting and falling in love, and the girl’s dad lays down some ultimatums for her. Julie’s stepmother is a nurse; Romeo has a very serious ex. But to look for the potentially Shakespearean references is to miss the very specific story being told about class, education, young parenthood, and social mobility in contemporary Wales – and the impossibility of having it all.

Romy (Callum Scott Howells) lives with his alcoholic mum Barb (Catrin Aaron) and his newborn baby, Niamh. When we first see him, he’s dealing with what Barb describes as a ‘gale force poo-nami’, and Barb tries to persuade him to give up the baby for fostering, telling him he can’t deal with it. He can’t bring himself to do it, though, and commits himself to single parenting, while Barb refuses to help. But some time later, he meets Julie (Rosie Sheehy) in the library. She’s hoping to read physics at Cambridge, and to be the first person in her family to go to university; she sees an opportunity to do her community service and improve her Cambridge personal statement by helping this working-class single-dad (‘It doesn’t get more community than you’). And quickly, they fall in love, but their lives are already going in different directions.

Rachel O’Riordan’s direction of the premiere in the Lyttleton Theatre struck the classic tone for so much twenty-first-century new writing. All the actors remained on stage for the duration on plastic chairs; physical transitions set to the pounding beats and bass lines of Gregory Clarke’s sound design, and flashing lights saw the actors dance into the next snapshot after a brief passage of time. The chairs and table were upended to become seaside debris or doorframes; neon tubes in abstract shapes (lighting by Jack Knowles) lit up to create patterns in the sky that may or may not have represented the Milky Way that Julie was so keen for Romy to see (and which became emblematic of a future that he was unable to). Within this, though, performances were naturalistic, even diffident. In the community of Splott – a particularly deprived post-industrial area of Cardiff whose relative poverty has been emphasised more by the gentrification of other areas of the Welsh capital – there was no glamour, no grandstanding, and often no hope. Hayley Grindle’s spartan, recycled set reflected the plain clothes, brusque or listless demeanours, and shrugged-away grumblings of the area’s inhabitants.

The play’s, and production’s, concerns were with social inequality. The essay portions of the play represented the weakest bits of writing: Barb and Julie’s stepmother Kath (Anita Reynolds) comparing the Welsh-medium comprehensive to which Julie goes with Barb’s sense that Romy was too thick to benefit; several scenes across which Julie explained to Romy that Cardiff wasn’t as good a university as Cambridge; the explanations of systems and barriers were information-dense and full of cliches, such as Julie describing the posh girl she met at a Cambridge interview who walked out of the room as soon as she heard she’d been to a comp. The conflict that emerged from these positions, though, was important. Julie quickly became pregnant (the clever girl being rebranded as ‘stupid’ by her father, Paul Brennen’s Col, and Kath), and decided to settle for her two-Cs insurance offer of Cardiff, deferring her place for a year so that she could start a family with Romy. Julie’s parents kicked her out as a result, and she went to live with Barb and Romy; when Romy found out what she was throwing away by not going to Cambridge, though, he dumped her, as a result of which she had an abortion. This play’s titular lovers did not die, but their idea of their life together did; closing on a reconciliation, Romy told Julie to ‘go. / And be brilliant / For all of us’. Julie’s potential to have a different life not defined by teen motherhood and under-achievement (on society’s terms) became a proxy for the possibility of change on a larger scale.

Social mobility dramas often struggle to avoid implicitly validating the idea that some communities do need to be escaped from, and for all of the love that this play and production had for Splott, I had that feeling here. Splott was characterized as fundamentally without hope: Barb drinking herself into destruction, Col coughing and spluttering as an effect of the steelworks where he’s been putting in the hours to fund Julie’s escape to university, Kath explaining (in another awkward set-piece that felt cut from a talking heads documentary) about the vanishingly small amount of time she was paid to be with the clients she gets up and puts to bed at night, and about having to give them companionship on her own time. In the absence of any characters outside this immediate family circle, or depictions of a life not defined entirely by work, the escape to Cambridge was aligned with Julie’s obsession with the starry night sky. The play’s clear stance was that Julie does need to escape, as the economic ravages of a capitalist system that depends on the existence of the poor in order to make being rich meaningful had left no other option for her. Julie, in Sheehy’s most earnest scene, wanted to be allowed to make her own choices, and to choose a family and a degree from a less prestigious university (if there was one thing which rang false about the whole thing, it’s that Cardiff is a Russell Group university and 18th in the country for Physics; the way the play spoke about it as if it’s a shit university when it is one of a self-selected, self-defining elite seemed weirdly snobbish) if that’s what she wanted – but her family and boyfriend took that choice away from her.

Julie’s pleading for choice was core to what made this such a powerful bit of theatre, rather than the writing. Sheehy and Howells were sensational, with electric chemistry that had audible parts of the audience gasping and whooping as they finally kissed. Romy was good-natured and wide-eyed, with lurching movements communicating the tiredness of looking after Niamh. The initial physical comedy of his disgust at dealing with a heavily beshitted set of nappies and baby clothes – holding everything at arm’s length – developed into a physical comfort with both baby and Julie; he was never at peace so much when holding his daughter. But he was also a scared young man, quick to become defensive at the first sign of being left, and while he was never aggressive, he showed resistance to allowing himself to become emotionally vulnerable that only Julie could break down. Sheehy, on the other hand, was lively, sarcastic, cheeky and confident. She barreled into Romy’s life with a smile and some gentle disdain for the school drop-out, but as he showed her how to look after his daughter, she slowly softened, drawn in by the commitment and love he showed, which developed empathy in her as she stopped thinking about herself as an individual and started imagining herself within a unit. Romy always represented a constant; the change here was all around Julie as her priorities changed, as she started demanding different things from her parents, and as she channelled her self-confidence into becoming resilient as she prepared to be a young mum herself.

The strength of Romeo and Julie‘s play-text is the navigation of complex emotions. None of the characters in this production were one-dimensional. Col may have taken a strong and deeply unreasonable position by throwing Julie out after learning she was pregnant, but Brennen’s performance made clear the strain of his decades of work and his profound sense of despair about his daughter’s future. Kath was, for much of the production, set up as the antagonist, the brusque stepmother inclined to aggression and cruel words towards her daughter, but whose toughness had been socially conditioned (the best part of her monologue about working conditions was the sense that, in having to channel herself into giving her patients the care they needed, she had ever less left over for herself and for her own family). Aaron’s drunken, selfish Barb had obvious problems, but her straight-talking and love for her son made sense of how far Romy was willing to mitigate and apologise for her binges. And while Romy’s abrupt dumping of Julie to force her to choose university was the only jarring note in terms of the script’s pacing, Sheehy and Howells never let the love that their characters felt for one another detract from their individual personalities, and never allowed their individual characters to become inflexible in relation to one another. Romy and Julie’s whole relationship was defined by negotiation; even at the heights of getting together, they would be tired or distracted; even when fighting, they still cared desperately about one another. The maturity that Owen scripted for, and which Howell and Sheehy brought to, these teenage lovers was the most respectful and powerful element of this production.

Romeo and Julie didn’t provide any solutions, and the separation of Romy and Julie at the play’s end felt deeply conditional. But as Julie said, ‘You have to believe I’m coming back / Or I can’t leave you’. Ahead of a massive life-change, what Romeo and Julie put its faith in was people: that while a deeply inequitable society might force people to choose between different lives, offering only the possibility of escape and individual betterment rather than of structural reform and redistribution of resource, people might be able to work against that, through belief. Julie’s strength of will, her resistance to people telling her what she could or could not do, her ability to find creative solutions and compromises, may have resulted in pushback from everyone around her. But right up to the end of the play, she continued to refuse to accept the script that had been written for her, holding tightly onto Romy and onto the love she’d developed for him and for Niamh (the most crushing bit of dialogue was Romy telling Julie that she couldn’t come back and see them every holiday, because Niamh would have to lose her again every time she left). This play ended not with a promised statue of two dead lovers, but with a living tableau of two young people leaving open the possibility that this may work out if they both want it enough – and that was the space of hope that Owen and O’Riordan left open for societal change.

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