Just like many other literature students you may know, I can’t get enough of Royal Shakespeare Company productions. Given that a particular academic interest of mine is the re-situation of culturally familiar stories in contemporary contexts, the buzz surrounding this production’s gender-bending casting piqued my interest especially: in Erica Whyman’s Verona, Mercutio, Gregory, Prince Escalus, the Apothecary, and Brother John are all women. Such a switch possesses great potential for literally ‘putting on show’ feminist and queer readings of the original text, as well as bringing historic words of wisdom to modern day situations. Unfortunately, while an entertaining show, the execution of this key concept proved a little less fresh than I had hoped.
A well-performed and aesthetically appealing production overall, Karen Fishwick’s Juliet was a stand-out performance for me. Her pitch-perfect delivery instilled a fiery passion and humour into a character that can sometimes be played a little too soppily for my taste. Possibly my favourite character in Romeo and Juliet is the ever-bawdy Nurse and Ishia Bennison truly embodied the role, never missing a beat with her witty retorts.
There were also some excellent moments in which the attention to gender and sexuality proved illuminating. Notably, I thought Benvolio’s more overtly queer affection for Romeo was a great directorial decision. Benvolio’s lines can certainly be read as implicit of romantic or sexual attraction to Romeo and although Romeo is not receptive to Benvolio’s advances, he does not shame him or seek to distance himself. Staging such a relationship is a powerful example of queer acceptance; refusing to enact the homophobic response we might expect from a straight teenager whose male friend is flirting with him. Despite this, given how much attention this production has received for the ‘gender and sexuality’ aspect it’s reworking, I was disappointed that it didn’t make a few more challenging statements. It seemed to me that the production didn’t quite push the concept far enough to make a cutting social commentary, rather, the audience simply got a ‘flavour’ of a contemporary critique. In the programme, Whyman draws attention to the ways Mercutio and Escalus’ lines, when spoken by female characters, are critical of the violence engendered by the insecurities of masculine bravado.
However, when enacted on the stage, many of these moments are glanced over without enough emphasis to have a real impact, which I felt was a waste of great potential. Similarly, although the production does suggest a commentary about knife-crime between young people, I was surprised to see this so explicitly written about in the programme. Although both Raphael Sowole (Tybalt) and Afolabi Alli (Paris) delivered their lines with excellent gravitas, their anachronistically traditional characterisation was out of keeping with a commentary of this kind. It was unclear why these seemingly refined, somewhat older men would strike up armed conflict with a teenager in a contemporary setting.
The set and lighting design for this production were undeniably stunning. The boxy, minimalist aesthetic framed the action in a way which added a great deal of depth to the drama, especially when the grey metal background was interrupted with colour at key moments: the golden beam of ‘yonder’ dawn or the red candles and roses mourning Tybalt’s death. The most effective example of this, in my opinion, was when the action shifts to the Friar Lawrence’s chapel. In these scenes the bleak backdrop was drawn apart at the centre, with a verdant wall of moss revealed between the two planes. The sudden emergence of such lush greenery amidst the oppressive grey perfectly mirrors the sudden, unexpected hope that the Friar represents; both for the young couple and for the end of the vicious feud between their respective families.
The decision not to use microphones to amplify the performers was, in my opinion, misjudged. It’s quite possible that if there had been a few less cold-sufferers and school-tripping children in the audience this would have been less of an issue. However, given the background noises, the performers were difficult to understand at times if they were not directly facing the audience, and the matter wasn’t helped by the unfamiliar lexicon and choice to include a wide variety of accents. Seeing as I had a central, mid-stalls seat, I suspect those further from the stage were straining their ears throughout.
Overall the production was highly entertaining, and I greatly enjoyed watching these talented actors ply their craft. If Whyman had been a little bolder in her adaptation of the material I think it would have proved a truly challenging production. I believe this production demonstrates that she has the potential to produce some ground-breaking pieces of theatre, and I look forward to the promise of her future work.
Romeo & Juliet plays at the Norwich Theatre Royal until February 2.