Romeo & Juliet
9th February 2012
Nuffield Theatre, Southampton
Headlong (co-production with Nottingham Playhouse, Nuffield Southampton & Hull Truck)
Directed by Robert Icke
Juliet – Catrin Stewart
Romeo – Daniel Boyd
It’s not my favourite play. I’ve sometimes felt somewhat bored in the theatre, because you know the story so well that it can be a bit of a trudge waiting for it to unfold and click together. I loved the Leonardo DiCaprio film, but if you’re going modern with Romeo & Juliet, why not book the singers and dancers and do West Side Story instead?
The Nuffield is a singularly unsuccessful theatre. There it is in Southampton, in a large university, in a large city with another large city, Portsmouth directly adjacent, and it’s never full. If you put on Romeo & Juliet in Bath or Salisbury, both way smaller, it would be full to bursting and hard to get tickets. The Nuffield was just over half full and that was with school parties. Take out the teachers, and I’d guess no more than a dozen paying adults. It’s been true for years, though in the 70s it was hard to get tickets. it must be an incredibly “non-literature” university. You’d think a university that size would fill it on staff and family alone. It reminds me of a conversation I had (mentioned elsewhere) with a rather grand elderly lady. She told me she lived in Bath. I told her I loved the Theatre Royal and was a regular visitor. ‘The Theatre Royal!’ she hooted in Lady Bracknell disgust, ‘Well, I suppose it’s all right if you are the kind of person who likes Shakespeare!’ Shakespeare was said in the tone one might say bear-baiting, or nose-picking. She should move to Southampton. It’s her kind of town. Very few of the inhabitants seem to like Shakespeare. In spite of having the Patrick Sandford superb Shakespeare productions of recent years, they don’t get the bums on the seats (which are too low and too soft). Draconian clamping warnings in the car parks might not help. I’ve seen great productions there to near empty houses.
This is a modern-dress Romeo & Juliet with a semi-platform stage at Southampton (though it won’t have on tour) and a raised lit acting area like a TV sceen floating above the main stage. Much is made of the four day time span of the play, and they have decided that a 24 motif with large projected clock will emphasize it. Another really weird visual reference is the habit of repeating several one to two minute scenes, slightly differently at the end, but not very differently. I assume it was a Sliding Doors moment when events could have changed direction if some tiny butterfly wing had flapped differently, but if so, it wasn’t clear enough. These don’t even seem to be crucial scenes. It’s as if the director saw the Robert Downey Jnr Sherlock Holmes films and thought ‘Ah, playing a short section twice. Let’s do it!’ But why?
They also thought suddenly blinding the audience with spotlights at transitions was cool. It was just blinding, so irritating. Another characteristic was intercutting two scenes simultaneously using the different areas. In the Romeo / Apothecary scene they both played it head on to the audience like two sides of a filmed dialogue from both camera positions simultaneously. Gimmicky direction.
The positives? The nurse (Brigid Zengeni) was outstanding. It’s been the best part in other productions too, as the nurse gets tension and comedy, the last a rare commodity in the play. Juliet (Catrin Stewart) was outstanding too, looking very young, helped by the costume of short wispy dresses. Juliet has so much happen; first love, first sex, murdered cousin, overbearing dad, forced marriage, faked suicide, real suicide. Excellent. Dad Capulet (Keith Bartlett) was intimidatingly nasty at the start of the second half with all three women cowed by him. Benvolio (Danny Kirrane) was very funny with a hangover, and has the advantage of looking very different. Buffalo Springfield’s For What It’s Worth (Stop, Look, What’s That Sound) was an inspired choice for the first fight sene. The languid female vocal I Don’t Like Mondays (I think it was the Tori Amos cover) closed Act One and worked. There could have been more pop song: Romeo and Juliet was after all the first literary exposition of teen angst. Early 60s pop was one of its strongest expressions. Another positive was Friar Laurence (Simon Coates) doing his initial speech to audience like a Catholic school headmaster complete with slide show. A lovely touch and he played it direct to the school parties. The Prince as politician at a lectern with microphones works, but I’ve seen the same device for the Prince / Duke / King in half a dozen Shakespeare productions in recent years. Those were the positives.
Unfortunately the negatives are a longer list. I’ve never seen so much hand acting. Juliet even added foot acting in the air while lying on her tummy on the bed (a major prop) but fortunately she had pretty feet. The gesturing and hand movements reached absurd levels throughout with every one of the cast, but Romeo had long arms which accentuated his. Hands waved around and sawed the air incessantly. Mercutio was a frenzy of gestures, pointing every double entendre graphically with mimes and hand movements. He seemed to spend half his act gesturing at his groin, rolling over and pointing furiously to his genitals while miming intercourse feverishly. Benvolio must have done ten crotch points or jerk off mimes. OK, explain the rude bits to the kids to give them an appreciation of Shakespeare’s humour, but this was relentless and way over the top. Just too “big.” The teenage audience loved it. I liked the idea of Mercutio dressed as Ronnie Wood though. So much attention was paid to gesture and too little to delivering lines. There was no light and shade. Everyone was full-on all the time. The Tybalt / Lady Capulet romance sub-plot was an interesting addition seen in the background … but why? It gave her a reason to look doleful through Act Two, I suppose. I didn’t like Romeo’s enunciation. It was hard to put your finger on it, though so many people say ‘lit-tull’ nowadays, and for a lot of them ‘roaring sea’ and ‘warring sea’ are indistinguishable, but let’s just say I wouldn’t book him for an audio recording of an ELT pronunciation course.
We thought great effort was put into PRODUCTION with all the requisite bells and whistles, but the DIRECTION of actors was poor. Count Paris looked great. His early contrast with Juliet was visually superb. His body language in the scene with Pa & Ma Capulet was great. But as soon as he opened his mouth we got one of the most wooden deliveries I’ve seen in professional theatre.
The scenes with Juliet, Nurse and Lady Capulet stood out because the three females were significantly more impressive than the young males. If you take Romeo, Mercutio, Benvolio, Tybalt … not one of them had the required air of virility, the testoserone charge … to make the aggro, and therefore the fight scenes credible. The fighting was not well choreographed. The passion wasn’t there in the love scenes. OK, we got semi-nudity, which is as much as it needs, but we didn’t get the electricity. That I’d put down to direction. The three Montagues had the burden of having to be slightly pissed through the crucial early scenes (modern British laddishness). That was because they’d gatecrashed the Capulet party in teen style. The concept latched hard on the teenage story … Juliet was thirteen in the original play, though if they had that line in, I missed it, and most productions (like West Side Story) quietly shift it to sixteen-ish. Juliet certainly did a lot of young teen acting, and that explains the boy gang being somewhat wet. I’d guess Headlong knew very well that 90% of their audience would be school parties, so the decision to push the teenage nature was considered.
We’d praised Headlong’s Midsummer Night’s Dream extravagantly and had great expectations of this. It didn’t meet them for us. But a major plus, it didn’t trudge slowly to the end, but maintained pace. If you’re taking a school party, they’ll have a lot of fun and they’ll find it exciting to see Shakespeare in 2012 settings with some modern line readings and lots of theatricality and visually exciting production ideas. The school party is probably the aim. There are a few criticisms in the above, but I’ll guarantee that no one in Southampton was watching anything as lively and entertaining. The Nuffield is a great acting space with a tremendous record of outstanding productions. I just wish they’d built it in a city that appreciated its worth.
Not much. Mercutio lit up at the beginning and that was one of the bits inexplicably done twice. The Gelato seller had a fag in his mouth, but there was a point, dripping ash on the cups he served to the lads, and dropping the end in one. On the other hand, if you’re assuming 90% school parties, I reckon you have to have a compelling reason to show ANY smoking at all. Unlike Coward or Rattigan, none is predicated in the script.
£2 should be an example to all those West End theatres with £3.50 / £4 programmes (and £45 seats compared to £17 ones here). I liked the essay on previous reinterpretations of Romeo & Juliet very much, though I’d like to have read what the concept was here. But the Chronology of when Shakespeare wrote each play is in every single Shakespeare programme you buy. I wouldn’t mind a note that it was written very close to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, so in a good year, but I have a pile of programmes informing me that Pericles dates from 1607, and I can’t see the relevance.
The songs they use are important and are inspired choices. How come then, that Tom Gibbons gets a credit for “music and sound” but the composers and performers of the records they use at crucial points, do not get a credit? This is becoming standard theatre practice. It makes me angry. I’d like to know the ones I didn’t already know, because I might have bought them. I did download the Tori Amos (which I recognized) after the performance. It’s excellent. I’ve just ordered the album. They credit everyone at all four theatres involved in the co-production, including front-of house managers, but not a word for the very important recorded music. Is it because they want it to be a surprise? I think it’s shameful.