Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Erica Whyman
Performed in 2018, this production from the Royal Shakespeare Company takes Shakespeare’s tragedy and challenges us to watch it with new eyes.
Available on BBC iplayer as part of their Culture in Quarantine series, the story of Romeo and Juliet is an audience favourite, and with good reason. Born into opposing families, Juliet Capulet and Romeo Montague connect at a party. Their experience of first love is the catalyst for a chain of events that ends with both teenagers taking their own lives.
Directed by Erica Whyman, Deputy Artistic Director at the RSC, Romeo and Juliet gets reworked. We are used to productions changing up the casting, the setting. While Shakespeare’s work lends itself to re-interpretation, some plays have been more successful at this than others.
In this production, Romeo and Juliet’s world has a contemporary edge. Modern details can sometimes feel tacked on, but here, the hedonist feel of the Montague and Capulet lifestyle is baked in. The streetwear wardrobe lets the actors move freely around the stage; house music pumps into the theatre as Romeo and his friends get ready to hit the town. The balance struck is cleverly done. The music by Sophie Cotton moves from heady beats into darker tones as the tragedy escalates.
We begin in familiar territory: two wealthy families consider the future of their offspring – new money mingles with old ideas. The Montagues and Capulets party hard whilst forging alliances. Juliet (played by Karen Fishwick) is a valuable pawn in her father’s game. Not quite 14, she is being readied for marriage.
Whyman reminds us that when it comes to gender politics in Shakespeare, it’s up to the director to decide how far they will stray. Romeo (Bally Gill) roams the streets with his friends, whilst Juliet is largely housebound. However, Whyman challenges the status quo, casting Charlotte Josephine as Romeo’s friend Mercutio. Clever, and quick to temper, Josephine’s Mercutio is more suited to the streets than Gill’s gentle Romeo. She struts across the stage, laughing and cracking jokes. Josephine’s performance proves that gender-blind casting absolutely works for this character. The dynamic between Romeo’s gang is galvanised by her presence.
The play, with its unwieldy plot, lives on its characters. As the doomed couple, this Romeo and Juliet have a sweet, natural chemistry that would have read as well to the audience in the theatre, as it does up close on the screen. As Romeo, Gill resists the temptation to go in early with testosterone-fuelled bravado. The character’s development, as circumstances change him from boy to man, is devastating to watch. Romeo and Juliet, is in every sense, a play about innocence lost.
Playing Juliet, Karen Fishwick works particularly well with Ishia Bennison as Nurse. With a mother who struggles to show affection, Juliet’s relationship with her Nurse is closer than blood. Bennison wins you over immediately, giving a performance full of warmth and honesty.
This is a production where the casting is so on point, it explains Whyman’s decision to work with an almost empty stage. With a single scaffold, it is left to the audience to fill in the space. It also helps to focus the mind on what is happening within that space – the story-telling remains clear and crisp throughout.
In exchange for your time, you get a Romeo and Juliet that is emotionally-charged and beautifully told. Despite the forces at work around them, we continue to root for Romeo and Juliet. There is a sense of hope that Shakespeare offers us, right at the final moment. Tragedy, he argues, is not inevitable. Despite everything we have seen, we are not destined to repeat the mistakes of our past.
Available here online until Saturday 23 August 2020