Up there with the Bard’s most well known and performed shows, you can be forgiven for thinking that Romeo and Juliet has been done to death and that there aren’t many new avenues to take in portraying its enduring messages of violence, fate and above all, love. It’s safe to say that director Daniel Kramer’s production – now playing at the Globe – smashes, demolishes, explodes, twists and turns the traditional story, bringing Romeo and Juliet well and truly into the 21st century.
Stepping into the Globe’s opulent courtyard and peering up at the “o’erhanging firmament” and the “majestical roof fretted with golden fire” there are a few things that immediately stand out. On either side of the stage are speakers piled three high, in the middle of the stage a row of LED lights and behind them on the balcony, a technical operator. Now, either my history is truly skewed or this show is going to be a non-traditional Shakespearean production.
I had heard rumour that the Globe’s Artistic Director, Emma Rice, was breaking with tradition and building a more contemporary style of production for her term at the Globe. Until now I didn’t understand what that meant and right there and then, I was thrilled!
No sooner after had I positioned myself in the courtyard (like the proper Groundling I am) did the production begin with an omniscient, booming voice-over spouting the shows Prologue, informing the story of the star-crossed lovers and their inevitable death. On stage, two actresses in clown makeup are wheeled out on hospital beds synchronized to the soundscape of heavy maternal breathing. What happens next sets the tone for the entire show – a rising synthetic note and then an explosion of technicolour dub-step and the fighting begins. In place of swords, child-like batons are held by the Capulets and Montagues; Lord Capulet and Montague are fitted with boxing gloves; two actors in riot gear bound from the trap door at the front of the stage; confetti explodes onto the audience in time with the beats. This is Shakespeare on acid.
Before long we are introduced to one half of the protagonists, Romeo (artfully played by Edward Hogg) in full, over-the-top mourning. Clown makeup plastered on with one big, fat tear embedded on his face, his feet drag and every step he takes feels like the weight of the world is on his shoulders. The beautiful thing about reading Romeo and Juliet as a modern audience (or indeed teaching it to today’s teenagers) is everyone’s favourite statement “God, Romeo’s a bit of whiner isn’t he?”. Here, the teenage angst is layered on thick.
Hogg’s voice as Romeo was captivating as he wrapped his tongue around the Bard’s word with such depressing accuracy. The humour in these scenes with Romeo was supported by the consistently contemporary costumed Benvolio (joyfully portrayed by Jonathan Livingstone) who, in my opinion, could have been taken from any inner-city suburban school in London and placed on the stage. Benvolio here shows us the former person that Romeo was before becoming a shell of a person defeated by unrequited love. The only plea I will make from this modern youth interpretation of Benvolio is to never affiliate Shakespeare’s character with the popular move “the dab”…ever *shudder*.
The third member of the trio, Mercutio, is here played as a woman (Golda Rosheuvel taking the ill-fated character) and this in turn brings a new meaning to the character, such as the intense Queen Mab speech, with images of Roman rape and the abuse of women’s bodies, Rosheuvel rides the emotions with ease. Her relationship with Romeo changes; is she in love with him? Is she jealous of Rosaline and Juliet? And what of her feelings for Tybalt? Does she want to fight him or is she attracted to his intensity as it reflects her own forthcoming and brutishly sexual personality?
As Romeo’s counterpart, Kirsty Bushell steals the show as Juliet. If the first half of Act 1 is Romeo’s story, the rest is Juliet’s. Bushell’s control over her voice, her innocent, youthful characterization and her ability to mix torment with personal ideologies drove every scene she was in. Bushell had this captivating ability to build immense tension in a scene, to the point the entire crowd was deathly silent…and then break it in one swift line (you could practically hear the audience exhale).
The standout scene was of course at the fated ending. Laying on the mattress at the front of the Globe’s stage, craddling the dead Romeo in her arms, she picks up his “poison” – in the form of a gun – and puts it to her head but cannot pull the trigger. The anguish is palpitating. Instead she picks up her dagger and with a blood curdling scream that echoed throughout the theatre, pierces her soul. I’m not ashamed to say that it was at this point tears were welling in my eyes.
It’s a testament to Shakespeare and the performers that you can consistently be told that these two are going to kill themselves and you still are shocked – overwhelmed even – at the event. You almost want to shout at the stage and run up there, grabbing the weapon out of Romeo’s hand to prevent the play from ending.
Kramer’s production is layered with new and (in my experience) original ideas, such as his layering of scenes. As Kramer states “I’ve always loved split scenes, where two or more things are happening at once. Form must reflect content: violence and hate and love are enlightening emotions”. So while Romeo and Juliet are being wed, Mercutio and Tybalt are quarreling in the streets. It’s a cunning idea and the juxtaposition of emotions and events work so efficaciously.
On top of this, the avant-garde costuming, designed by Soutra Gilmour and supervised by Anna Josephs reflect the overall design and layered interpretation of the performance. All actors are in clown makeup, some suited to their character – for instance, Paris is smothered in golden makeup to represent his wealth and bachelor status.
Then there is the ultimate amalgamation of costumes and overall utter brilliance in my favourite scenes to interpret from the play, the Capulet’s party, where the star-crossed lovers meet. As per the opening, an explosion of sound and colour is thrust onto the stage, all the actors in recognisable pop-culture costumes. Whether it be King Kong, Elphaba, Pluto or the Invisible Man, this is clearly the high point in the show. Lowering slowly from the heavens of the Globe, Lord Capulet (Gareth Snooks exuding a voice built for the Shakespearean language) rides a missile and immediately starts belting out The Village People’s famous tune YMCA. Never did I expect to be seen doing the YMCA at the Globe Theatre.
The meeting of the lovers was, to me, reminiscent of scenes from Baz Lurman’s popular film version of the Bard’s tale as the lovers are seperated by the dancing party guests carrying out Tim Claydon’s choreography. The stage is beautifully utilised and the dimensions in space are built clearly – you don’t need a set to build a mansion.
Reflecting on what I previously said about the less “traditional” faculties of the show, sometimes this blurred the spoken lines from the actors who wore microphones. There was an element that seemed out of place with these voice extensions in the Globe, which was intentionally built to have a practical acoustic to let the actors sound carry. At times these new additions to the Globe’s space seemed to be unneeded garnishing, like coriander on a meal that you only use to make it look pleasing.
In summation, if you’re looking for a more traditional interpretation of Romeo and Juliet, you’re better off avoiding the Globe until it’s revisited again. However, I fully encourage theatergoers to take a chance on something new, something avant garde and something that may never be seen again at the Globe.
The best production of Romeo and Juliet I’ve seen? Quite possibly.
If you’re lucky, you may have the heavens pour down on you right as Mercutio is killed by Tybalt and Romeo then returns the deed…money can’t buy that fitting soundscape.
Romeo and Juliet is playing at The Globe Theatre now. For more information, tickets as well as the other productions running this year, click the link below.