Romeo and Juliet
by William Shakespeare
Shakespeare’s Globe, London
Tuesday 28th April 2015, 14.00
Matt Doherty as Paris / Tybalt / Montague / Peter
Steffan Donnelley as Mercutio / Prince / Apothecary
Steven Elder as Capulet / Friar John
Sarah Higgins as Nurse / Lady Montague / Balthazar
Tom Kanji as Friar Laurence / Benvolio
Cassie Layton as Juliet
Hanah McPake as Lady Capulet / Chorus
Samuel Valentine as Romeo
Romeo and Juliet is the most accessible Shakespeare story, and it’s also the one that takes best of all to being played around with, conceptualized, place and time shifted. In the 60s, our music teacher insisted that West Side Story would prove to be the greatest stage musical of all, and in retrospect I think he was right. Then there’s the DiCaprio film. In fact, the only times Romeo & Juliet has bored me somewhat has been played straight. Before going to the Globe, I checked out a few previous ones (prior to the blog) and I was discussing the Chichester 2002 production with one side dressed as Muslims the other as Christians, and I Googled. I remembered Una Stubbs as the nurse, but had no memory that Juliet had been played by Emily Blunt. Interestingly, reviewers hadn’t spotted her talent.
So here we are in 2015 looking for the next stars? Though like Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet in 2014, this isn’t a full Globe season production, but rather the Globe prelude to a long touring production. So this one may turn up near you. It was only the second Globe performance, but the tour was already under way. The set had a platform for the balcony in front of the actual Globe balcony, which seems weird, but they need that on tour. It’s also more flexible, and in the past when there’s been bright sunlight outside, we have had trouble seeing action within the shadows of the Globe balcony. As they sat on the front edge at times, and used it for several characters it is essential.
It’s a Globe production. Take it as read that it’s essential viewing. I wouldn’t criticize in such detail unless I had really enjoyed it.
This is a very stripped down touring production with a cast of eight, plus two percussionists / scene shifters. It means trebling up. It means quadrupling up. So the first issue is costume. They have gone for pale beige trousers and white shirts open to the waist for the men, beige trousers and white tops for the women. This is what they’re all wearing for the “pre show” musical number. The odd decision, we thought REALLY odd, was to have heavy tattooing (credited in the programme to Temporary Tattoos). I thought it an error in several ways. It has no point. It’s very visible with bare chests and it’s on necks, so shines through the meagre costume changes when trebling up. Third, with lots of sixth formers on this afternoon, it’s a poor example. Very poor. They say David Beckham single-handedly increased interest in tattoos to the point where you can get yourself marked for life in every high street. I had an elderly neighbour who had heavily tattooed wrists done in Malta in the navy which embarrassed him in his 80s. Do you really want the name of your teenage swain tattooed on your neck thirty years after the break-up? I tried to work out the symbolism but couldn’t follow it. Bad idea.
The trebling up is achieved by adding cloaks, or gowns left partly open (apart from the nurse who gets a proper skirt). Juliet changes to a thin white dress. It’s not very heavy on costume, just an Elizabethan add on to modern dress which has worked for previous touring shows.
Party time at the Capulet house
I had my doubts about colour coding. The Capulet parents and the Count of Paris had green additions, the Montagues had dusty crimson. But only the parents. Early on, we had no idea which was which. Other productions in modern or semi modern dress have added (say) red and green (or whatever colour) caps, or red and green waistcoats or even red and green sashes to mark Montagues and Capulets. Actually, red v green is the worst choice of all, as the colour blind can’t distinguish them. Red v Blue would be better. Colour costume differentiation was badly missed early on here. But this production won’t win any costume nominations, let alone prizes.
Audience management was an issue. We lost most of the first seven or eight minutes entirely because of late arrivals coupled with people from “seat number unaware cultures” who had moved to empty places and had to be moved out again to let in late arrivals. The final late arrival shown to a seat was FORTY MINUTES in. Fortunately she ignored the usher indicating a seat in the middle of a row and sat on the end of another row. What other theatre does that? Yes, admit late arrivals of course, but they should stand till the interval. It really badly screwed the initial impact of the play for us. We were in the Lower Gallery with a great central view. We’ve never known that wandering around to happen in the Middle or Upper galleries, presumably because people don’t even get in to the “towers” in the first place. Very poor audience management lasted into the second half with people shifting around. I know the front of house staff are volunteers. Better guidance for them is needed.
One major problem was Sarah Higgins as the nurse. I hate to single out actors, but the nurse is an important part and gives needed humour. Her comic timing was extremely good and funny, as were her facial expressions and body language. When she played Lady Montague and Balthazar, she gave a crystal clear RP delivery. As the nurse, she not only did extremely strong Scottish, but did it at very high speed. Now I know the nurse’s part well. I’ve even done it myself (in drag), but I could barely follow what she was saying at all. The Russians in front of us were in despair, as were some Italians to one side. These people had probably studied the play, knew it too, but couldn’t understand a word. That level of heavy accent is ridiculous. The actor is first rate. She can do RP. Scottish (she studied in Scotland and was in The James Plays) gives a nice character change, but you should have a volume control. I can do Dorset at anywhere from 1 to 10. You wouldn’t understand me at level 10. Her Scottish accent was at a Spinal Tap level 11. It was like trying to explain a problem to SKY Television on the phone where none of the Scottish operators deign to moderate accent or pace in the slightest for communication. That’s what people normally do. It’s how a West Texan and a Glaswegian manage to communicate with each other. They moderate accent towards a perceived middle. She really, really needs to turn it down to 5. If I couldn’t follow it, what can an international (or English) audience make of it? There are a lot of eager non-native speakers at the Globe. It’s not “tourism” – they’ve studied the play, worked on it, clutch copies in their hands. Why hasn’t the director told her to turn it down? I’m glad now I never bothered to see The James Plays. I wouldn’t have understood a word. Having said that, in The James Plays, with everyone doing the same accent, I would have eventually become accustomed to it, as I did with James McAvoy’s dystopian Scotland Macbeth. Here, it’s one person only. Reviewers always pray actors never see their words, but in this case, I hope she does. Fabulous comedy, timing, movement but MODERATE THE ACCENT. Don’t lose it. Just reduce the depth. I’ve spent my career working with recorded accents. It really irritated me!
In contrast, Mat Doherty had to do Tybalt, and The Count of Paris (add green jacket), Peter the servant (add yellow hat, severe limp and Geordie accent) and Monatague Senior (add red gown) and made them all work, and he had the disadvantage of being so much bigger and taller that he was instantly recognizable. But the Geordie accent was Geordie enough to be funny (and his limping Peter was very funny) but also completely comprehensible. Elsewhere, people switched from RP to slight Northern. Not interference with communication at all. You have to do accents with trebling up, but do it in proportion.
The hit for everyone … and it was a young audience … was Mercutio. I guess it usually is. Steffan Donnelley was the most heavily tattooed, and he’s very thin. Again curly hair makes him distinctive, combined with an ever open shirt, even when he adds a yellow cloak as the Duke, or a brown cloak for the apothecary. It’s a part that has the lines, but superbly put across lines they were too. The contrast of his slightness with the burliness of Tybalt added to their fight scene. Both fight scenes were good, but could have been better. The fight scenes were the main draw in 1596 and were long and elaborate set pieces.
The death of Mercutio, then Tybalt, is of course the issue with Romeo & Juliet. It might be the best-known play, but in line with so many of his contemporaries, he’s killed off Mercutio and Tybalt, two of the most interesting characters before the interval. Also while the nurse is hilarious early on, she has nothing to laugh about in part two.
Romeo & Juliet on the balcony
Neither Romeo nor Juliet double up, which is right. Juliet looked the part … slight, young-looking. She had good modern teen interpretations on some lines too, but in the end, do you update or not? If you’re going for modern line readings you go further. We also thought Romeo, generally excellent, looked a tad too old. He was clear and the beard made him distinctive, but beards are ageing. Benvolio and Capulet have strong beards. Steffan Donnelley (Mercutio) was the only beardless one, and in the opening ensemble musical piece, we had guessed he must be playing Romeo, purely as a result. If asked ‘Should Romeo have a beard?’ I’d instinctively say, ‘No.’ Let’s not go into the availability of razors in 1596 nor the onset of puberty and shaving. Beards add five years.
We were both dubious about the Romeo and Juliet death scene. A 50% wider tomb would have greatly improved it. There’s no point in cramping the big finale. It seemed awkward and inelegant.
Opening (not at The Globe)
In the opening and closing pieces we were impressed, as last year, that not only could everyone sing, but everyone was playing a musical instrument: accordion, guitar, violin, saxophone, clarinet.
In spite of all that carping, it was an excellent Romeo & Juliet. We’ve seen better, but we’ve also seen a lot, and seen worse. It delighted the school parties, thanks mainly to Mercutio. In the end three star, rather than four or five, but it is the stripped down Reduced Shakespeare eight actors touring version. I love Globe closing dances, but this one was tentative. It won’t be a couple of weeks down the line.
Ignore the boasts of the NT, the Globe programs are the best in London (first equal with RSC nationally). Nice understated 2015 series design.
OTHER PRODUCTIONS OF ROMEO & JULIET REVIEWED ON THIS BLOG: