The Theatre Royal hosted the Royal Shakespeare Company’s recent adaptation of William Shakespeare’s timeless love story Romeo and Juliet. Despite being more than 400 years old, Director Erica Whyman has managed to transform this classic into a fresh and engaging play about our world today. From the set, music, costume, to the inclusion of young people from schools around the country, this show now ranks first on my list of previously seen Romeo and Juliet performances. It truly deserved the loud applause and cheers from the audience and if the people of Nottingham get a chance they should definitely go and see it!
“Edgy and contemporary focus on the 21st century youth culture and knife crime”
It is hard to imagine from the contemporary stage design that the play is set in ‘fair Verona’. Tom Piper’s bare stage sported only one immense, rotating metallic cube that opened up on two sides with a support ladder occasionally attached to one corner for easy access to the top. Whilst this didn’t convey any essence of romance, it did align itself perfectly with the edgy and contemporary focus on the 21st century youth culture and knife crime. This versatile structure became the rock that held the performance together – acting as the balcony in which Juliet and Romeo first confessed their love, then as the Friar’s cell where they were married and finally as the tomb in which they both die – its imposing, heavy and solid presence became a warning or sign that nothing happy could come of these events.
In conjunction with this, the only other note-worthy element of the set design was the backdrop which consisted of black hangar sized doors. These produced a very urban and industrial environment that could have been anywhere in the United Kingdom. This was cleverly thought out by Piper, especially as it made me feel that I was looking at my own city, Nottingham, and at a group of actors my own age, honing in on the idea that love and violence are still a looming presence in today’s society.
“It was the first time I watched a Shakespearean play and thought that this is a play about the ‘here and now’”
The modern street clothing also connects the play to an increasing contemporary issue of knife crime. In the opening scenes the stage is full to the brim with young actors ranging from the ages of early teens to mid-20s in black leggings, jeans, black leather jackets and hoodies and carrying knives. Whilst this costume choice was rather simplistic to look at and at times it did feel as if it was overstating the point that youth crime is an issue, it worked because it made these characters relatable and fully fleshed out. It was the first time I watched a Shakespearean play and thought that this is a play about the ‘here and now’. This added a weight and sting to my sorrow at the unavoidable ending – I truly felt that the Romeo and Juliet on stage could have been my fellow class mates.
“The techno music … made the Capulets’ party feel more like a 21st century night club than a momentous first encounter of star-crossed lovers.”
The techno music of the first act continuously ushered in these young adults and made the Capulets’ party feel more like a 21st century night club than a momentous first encounter of star-crossed lovers. This immediately made the scene feel less serious than the text requires but somehow I didn’t mind. I think again it spoke to the younger members of the audience – asking them to remember a house party or a night out when they’ve met a mysterious, wild young man. Who wouldn’t feel excited by this? The change to more ominous and lyrical music in the second half of the show spoke of the Sound Designer, Jeremy Dunn’s attention to detail as it mirrored the psychological and emotional changes in the young lovers which climaxed in the death scene.
I thought it was refreshing for the director to cast young people from across the country. It made a change from having older actors play young people in a play that is supposed to be about young love. Special mention must go to Charlotte Josephine who took on the role of Mercutio and made it her own. She reinvents Mercutio into a tough, crop-haired female who is feisty and always ready for a fight. This cross-gender casting allows a previously male role to be reinvented for a woman. Whilst there are still the laddish jokes and tormenting of Juliet’s nurse she is very much alert, more so than ever, to her position as a woman among men. When Tybalt dismisses and shushes her because of her gender, the disapproval and frustration visible from both Mercutio and female members of the audience suggested that all were ready to take on and prove their strength and bravery to and against this egocentric and condescending male.
“The usually weighty and serious lines about conflict, desire, love, murder and marriage were given a breath of fresh air by the charming and charismatic Romeo”
Lastly the relationship between Romeo, played by Bally Gill and Juliet, played Karen Fishwick was utterly convincing. The usually weighty and serious lines about conflict, desire, love, murder and marriage were given a breath of fresh air by the charming and charismatic Romeo who made light, through comedic gestures, of every situation. This combined with the heart-breaking and overly emotional lines during their death scene made the trials and tribulations these young lovers endured real and palpable, so much so that I was left speechless and distraught by the end.
There were moments of comedy, violence and heartache but whichever one I was faced with I immensely enjoyed watching these talented actors. I found myself simultaneously laughing and crying and the imposing set design and music made me want to see it all over again and soon!
Featured Image courtesy of Theatre Royal & Royal Concert Hall Official Facebook Page.