When you go and see William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet what do you think? Is it a play about Star-crossed lovers, fate, conflict, or do you think it is predominately about revenge? All of these are valid themes that have been ingrained in our minds from our school days. Yet on Wednesday Director Erica Whyman’s production at the Royal Shakespeare Company illuminated other more complex issues that I had failed to pick up on in past studies and productions.
It opened with an alteration to the Chorus – instead of having one person utter the speech, Whyman introduced a multicultural and youth orientated picture with only the lines ‘Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona, where we lay our scene’ spoken clearly. Then, an overlapping of tones and accents erupted when the lines ‘star-cross’d lovers take their life’ and ‘parents’ strife’ were delivered. Personally I was not a fan of this – it made me feel uncomfortable because its increasing noise was chaotic and jarring. However, I understand precisely why it was done – to have the opening scene, the first thing the audience witness foreground the plays most inherent problem, that of silencing and encaging young voices, powerfully raises awareness of and acts as an outcry against such injustices.
The casting of Karen Fishwick as Juliet and Bally Gill as Romeo add a youthful freshness to the play. Fishwick creates a sympathetic Juliet through her teenage angst by raging around, beating her bedroom pillows, throwing roses around her room and storming the stage in a petulant and childish manner. Whilst Gill, captures the adolescent self-consciousness perfectly with his immature, show-off entourage and naïve self- assurance. Together they create a charming and engaging couple yet at the same time create a poignant sting to their tragedy.
Additionally, Michael Hodgson makes Capulet an extremely violent and abusive figure. The scene where he forcefully tells Juliet to marry Paris emphasises a young person’s reality – being at the mercy of their elders, helpless and subjected to domestic and patriarchal tyranny. As a young women I think that Whyman couldn’t have timed her stressing of the theme of the unheard youngster any better because at the moment there are a lot of dissatisfied young people who feel that their voice since the EU referendum haven’t been heard or have been used by those in power.
This power dynamic is most clearly seen through the use of clothing, of the stage space and the actor’s use of his body and voice. There is a symbolic use of clothing as Juliet is dressed in the same deep navy colour as her father – an obviously marked reminder that she is subjected to him and his rule. Additionally, Capulet continuously thunders towards his daughter, moving them both around the entire stage which reminded me of a predator stalking and getting ready to kill its prey. Hodgson’s use of his body, towering over Fishwick, advancing with his shoulders and stomping heavily in conjunction with his clever change of tone causes no wonder in the viewer that Juliet ended the scene cowering on the floor – a hyperbolic yet accurate representation of the way young people feel as if they have no voice in the world.
Speaking of powerlessness I feel as if can’t finish this post without mentioning the gender swap of Mercutio. To have Charlotte Josephine play a role characteristically known for it’s roguish, boyish and crude lines gives a figure to advance the concept of empowered women, of equality. It is clever to do this as viewers witness a woman laugh, speak out, fight, defend and revenge – all of which were considered unacceptable for women in Shakespearean time and even in certain areas today.
However, I was also unsettled by this – to have the only women with authority in this play adopt male characteristics, expressions and appearance suggested to me that women can only have power if they behave and look like men. I wonder what kind of message this sends to other women who are romantic, gentle, and feminine, who resemble Juliet in appearance and manner? Is it suggesting that they cannot be successful and empowered in life? That the qualities of a woman are less capable of maintaining power or of solving problems?
I think to imply this is wrong – I know it would be impossible to change the tragic ending but to have Juliet perform certain lines or scenes with more confidence, defiance or authority would suggest, even with its fatal ending, that any kind of woman can be equal to and achieve all that men can. However, I do acknowledge that Josephine’s portrayal of the female Mercutio provides those less girly girls to have an inspirational figure to look up – which is just as important as what I’ve been proposing.
There are many other brilliant things that this production did to refresh a timeless play but the focus on youth, their struggle for a voice, for authority and the injustices placed upon them in addition to the issues raised through Mercutio played upon my emotions. It awoke within me the want to see these problems resolved as a young woman and for all women and young people in the future.
A great play to see!
Thanks for reading 🙂