Romeo and Juliet

QPAC Playhouse (Bell Shakespeare)


by William Shakespeare,

Professional production

Shakespeare rules, OK? And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

In spite of moans and groans about a modern tendency to dumb-down the Bard; in spite of academic conferences considering such weighty topics as Shakespeare as a Motivational Tool in Sports and Business (would I lie to you?); in spite of endless debates about whether it was Our Will or some better-educated impostor who actually wrote the masterworks; in spite of deadly-dull high school classes and agonised textual analysis of solid versus sullied flesh: in spite of all this and more, this particular Dead White Male managed to keep about a thousand raucous teenagers quiet for three hours last Tuesday, with many of them (admittedly mostly girls with panda eyes and bed hair) in tears. So don’t tell me Shakespeare is irrelevant to our times!

“For never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo.” The final lines of the play sum it up, for Romeo and Juliet is indeed the most tragic of all Shakespeare’s tragedies. In other plays, like Macbeth, Hamlet and even Othello,there is always somebody left to take over and carry on, but these young lovers are the only offspring of their respective families, and their early deaths mean the end of the family line.

It’s a play about young people in the foolish flush of first love, who can’t see beyond their own passion and will not listen to their elders – and we’ve all been there. A rational grown-up approach to this love affair would be to say, “Grow up! Listen to your elders and betters. When you’ve reached maturity you’ll understand that we only have your best interests at heart.”

But the whole point is that young people don’t listen to their parents’ advice – the old are a different species, and know nothing, and have never suffered, and can’t understand. All modern 13-year-olds believe that love conquers all and that they know best. And this is why the play resonates so strongly with young people in every generation, because it’s about the frustrations of growing up.

But it’s a morality tale for older people, too, that we have to listen to our young people and be sympathetic to them. None of the adults in the play can see that, except the figures of the Nurse and Friar Laurence, who are usually played as figures of fun. In John Bell’s intelligent interpretation of the play, however, they are the only two who can cross the generations, and although their efforts may be fumbling and the outcomes devastating, at least they have tried to empathise with the young lovers’ plight.

Romeo and Juliet has survived the treatment of many directors, and has proved its timelessness over and over again. Some people might think that there’s no going back after Baz Lurhmann’s film Romeo + Juliet, but John Bell has surpassed him by being just as up-to-the-minute (iPods, skateboards, blades and cargo pants), but keeping faith with the text, neither cutting it to shreds nor sacrificing the words to the action. And the kids in the audience got it, listening and laughing at all the appropriate places, and reacting just as the groundlings would have in Shakespeare’s day, especially with rowdy guffaws at the sexual jokes – although I did notice that the word maidenhead is apparently not part of the modern vocabulary, for nobody except the adults picked up the wicked word-play of the opening scene.

I thought this was a fantastic production. The set is pared down, as befits a show that is going to travel all around the country, and its out-of-kilter walls and sloping floor are a perfect metaphor for the fact that the time here, as in Hamlet, is out of joint. To ensure that there’s no confusing the Capulet tribe with that of the Montagues, the former are dressed in shades of red, pink and orange, while the latter are all blue and green, so that when the street fights take place it’s like a mob of rainbow warriors.

Bell has made some risky casting and directing decisions, but on the whole they’ve paid off. John Batchelor plays Capulet as an amiable buffoon, Secret Men’s Business and with sexual innuendo seeming to dominate his life, but like so many bluff hearty men he displays a disconcerting violence when he’s crossed, and was there a disturbing sub-text to his relishing the idea of his virgin daughter’s wedding night, and later embracing her dead body? He’s certainly a type we recognise.

Friar Laurence, instead of being portrayed as the fat fool that he usually is, in the hands of in the hands of that fine actor Philip Dodd becomes a tall thin priest subliminally re-enacting his own youth, desperate to do the best for both his young charges even when he’s ambivalent about his personal reactions to their youth and beauty. He too becomes a figure of tragedy rather than fun, a kind of Falstaff with a conscience, whose intentions are good, but whose grasp of logistics is shaky, and whose courage fails him at crucial moments. This is one of the better interpretations of the Friar I’ve seen in a long life of theatre-going.

Although the other characters are too many to mention individually, James Evans’s Tybalt, in his tight orange leathers, is a convincing villain, and plays the class game very effectively – no mixing with the street gangs for him. He’s going to live and die his own way, and he’s very frightening indeed.

Sarah Woods as the Nurse is a piece of casting that employs all the clichés about this character – the bawdiness, the swinging loyalties, even the just-slightly-off-the-mark clothing – but she fits into the family better than any other Nurse I’ve seen, more a companion than a servant, completely at home with her place in the household, but intimidated by the master of the house as much as everyone else. Woods plays her as a shrewd sensible creature who, while having Juliet’s happiness at heart, knows the way of the world, and realises that although weeping may endure for a night, joy comes in the morning (Psalm 30:5, if you care). This, combined with her inability to communicate except through babble, makes her failure to protect the child even more tragic.

Of the minor characters, most are adequate, having nothing of any real importance to do, and some are brilliant. Thank God for Arky Michael, one of the funniest actors in mainstream theatre, who plays Peter, the older melancholy Capulet retainer, as the ultimate fall guy. His baggy shorts and striped socks are a sight for sore eyes, and his deadpan acceptance of the blows rained on him never gets in the way of his canny self-preservation. Lexi Frieman as Lady Montague had nothing much to do except look like a leafy-suburbs air-head, for Lady Capulet has the best role, which Linda Cropper exploits to the full. And so to the star-crossed lovers themselves. I really liked Julian Garner’s Romeo, private school lad though he was. There’s something about him that would make any mother wish he were her son, for in spite of his youthful silliness, he shows his potential to make a valuable contribution to society in any of the more respectable professions. Garner effectively goes through all the problems of the adolescent, swinging from butch self-confidence with his peers to trembling trepidation in the presence of his sweetheart, and we can almost believe him when he shrugs off his first love Rosalinde to declare himself smitten for ever by Juliet. It all has to end in tears, we know, but perhaps death is better than disillusion when it comes to the inevitable end.

I had a great deal of trouble, though, with the casting of Chloe Armstrong as Juliet. Apart from being even skinnier than Posh Beckham, which detracted, in the eyes of my companions at least, from her sexual appeal, she moved like the dancer she is rather than a feet-on-the-ground actor, and wasn’t convincing in her role as a flesh-and-blood woman with all a growing woman’s desire. She was so brittle that it seemed as if she would break in any red-blooded man’s embrace. Nor did she have the vocal facility to match her character – although John Bell wisely has all the actors speaking in their natural Australian accents, Armstrong’s voice has a grating edge, especially in the vowel sounds, which sits uneasily with her physical fragility.

In the end, of course, the play’s the thing, and it triumphs as it always has and, I suspect, always will. This is a Shakespeare production as up-to-the-minute as you could wish, but always treating the text with the greatest respect, without any dumbing-down or trivialising, and every teenager in the audience on Tuesday loved it, showing their appreciation with stamping whistling and raucous cheering. And so did I. Directed by John Bell

Set and costumes Stephen Curtis, lighting Matt Scott Playing until Saturday 29 July 2006 – Wednesday, Friday and Saturday at 7.30pm, Tuesday 11am and 6.30pm, Thursday 11am and 7.30pm, Saturday matinee 2pm

Duration : three hours, with one interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Mon 24th July 2006)