Michael Billington points out in his review of Romeo and Juliet (which has now transferred from Stratford to London’s Roundhouse) that ‘the eternal difficulty with this play is making us believe that the tragedy is inherent rather than a tacked-on product of a faulty postal service’ http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2010/dec/03/romeo-and-juliet-review. Rupert Goold manages to overcome this problem by presenting the prologue as an audio guide that is listened to by Sam Troughton’s Romeo as he visits Verona. Both he and Juliet (Mariah Gale) wear modern dress as they fall hopelessly and fatefully in love against a background of Renaissance Italy and feuding families.
This production is heavy with Catholic imagery and prompts us to imagine ourselves as an Elizabethan audience that has endured fifteenth-century England’s religious upheavals; we are Protestants and sceptical of anything to do with popery. Italians are Catholics, hence the misguided interference of Friar Laurence, the necessity of attending Confession and the imagery of saints shared by the two lovers at their first meeting. Early modern society also viewed Mediterranean races as hotter than those from northern Europe. The anger and rivalry between the Capulets and Montagues is all there in the language of the play, but Goold also introduces fire as a recurrent motif throughout this production. The opening fight scenes are interspersed by flashes of fire, Benvolio is narrowly saved from death by burning and a back projection of flames accompanies many of the scene changes. Religious martyrs were frequently burned at the stake, and fire and flame are metaphors for love and passion.
Against this fast moving background of imagery and poetry two young people meet and fall in love despite parental opposition and familial enmity. We all know the ‘story … of Juliet and her Romeo’ but what is often missed in the staging of a play that moves at such speed, is the fact that the tragic tale, from beginning to end, is laid down within the prologue (‘A pair of star-crosssed lovers take their life’). We are also regularly reminded of the outcome throughout the drama: from their first meeting the lovers are aware that their relationship could end in death, they both suffer from dreams and premonitions where each sees the other dead, and they both make references to knives, daggers and poison during the course of the play. None of this is missed in Goold’s production, making the poignancy of the ending even stronger and more inevitable.
However before the fateful ending is reached we are privileged to share an amazing theatrical experience. This RSC ensemble piece, which has been in the current repertoire since the spring, is a tightly acted play. The lovers share a tension and electricity, the sensuality of which is underpinned by the rhythmic pounding of the music at their first meeting. They convey an awareness that this is a new experience for both of them, particularly for Juliet, who first appears petulantly playing with a child’s whip. Romeo’s asides, during Juliet’s balcony scene, are directed at the audience from the edge of the stage; the effect is to make us even more complicit in their relationship.
The all-excluding romantic love of Romeo and Juliet is balanced by the bawdiness of both the Nurse and Mercutio. The latter is brilliantly and comically portrayed by Jonjo O’Neill, resplendent in a blonde wig and black eye liner. He may look like a New Romantic, but his hip-thrusting bawdiness verges on pornography and even begins to disgust Benvolio. Tybalt (played by Joseph Arkley) is as hot-headed as his uncle, Lord Capulet (Richard Katz). The nephew’s desire to fight with Romeo is equally matched by the older man’s anger and paternalistic control over his daughter, particularly in the confrontation over his wish to marry her to Paris when he appears to be about to assault her.
This production also uses a mix of regional accents: Lady Capulet (Christine Entwisle) is a Northerner; Peter Peversley (understudying the Scottish Forbes Masson in the version I saw) is a Geordie
Friar Laurence; Tybalt is a Scotsman; Peter is Welsh and Jonjo O’Neill speaks with his native Belfast accent. This miscellany of voices suggests that we all suffer the same experiences wherever we hail from, but this is further underpinned by the RSC’s colour blind casting. We are all the same under the skin, especially when attending a masked ball.