Local teenagers will be treading the boards with members of the Royal Shakespeare Company when RSC bring their contemporary production of Romeo & Juliet to the Norwich Theatre Royal. Four English and Drama students from Costessey’s Ormiston Victory Academy and four from Notre Dame High School will take turns performing during the production’s run in Norwich, and will among other things help the Chorus deliver the famous line “A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life.” Director Erica Whyman has said that “we were bowled over by the impact our tour of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream: A Play for the Nation had on the young people who took part and those who came to watch as we traversed the UK. I want to build on that hugely positive experience, as we stage Romeo and Juliet, opening up a dialogue with young people in schools in ways we have never before been able to do.”
This new production of the most famous love story in all of literature comes straight from its successful run at the Barbican in London. Starring Karen Fishwick and Bally Gill as the “star cross’d lovers”, Whyman’s production also features Charlotte Josephine in the role of Mercutio, Romeo’s confidante who incidentally delivers some of the best innuendos of the Shakespearean canon (“If love be rough with you, be rough with love/Prick love for pricking, and you beat love down.”) Josephine, who has also written two plays that has previously been put up at The Garage in Norwich (Bitch Boxer and Blush) told the Norwich Theatre Royal that “it’s not the first time that a woman has played it [the role of Mercutio], but it feels particularly fresh at the moment.” The genders have been reversed for several of the roles in this production, as Gregory, Prince Escalus, the Apothecary and Brother John are all played by female actors. According to Josephine, this is due to Whyman being “passionate about seeing more women on stages and giving women the opportunity to be represented.” Where possible, the director has “tried to change the gender or the race, or the age or the class in terms of accent, to open up doors for not only young actors like myself to get an opportunity to play these amazing roles, but also for audiences to see perhaps someone like themselves on stage”.
Cross-gender acting is nothing new in Shakespeare; in Elizabethan times, women were forbidden by law to act on stage, and so female parts would be played by young boys with unbroken voices. Considering how comedies such as Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream both feature female characters that masquerade as men, the Shakespearean gender roles are fluid to say the least. Nowadays, it is common for actors to play roles of the opposite gender; it has become an interesting way of playing with ideas of gender, sexuality and desire that are all there in the original text. Hamlet has long been a favourite with female actors, from Sarah Bernhardt in 1899 to Maxine Peake’s acclaimed take on the Danish prince at the Manchester Royal Exchange in 2014. The Globe Theatre frequently put on all-male productions, in which Mark Rylance has played everything from Richard III to Cleopatra. To Josephine, taking on the role of Mercutio was an opportunity to “say some words that have been forbidden for women for so long. Men always get to run around and do the sword fights and be sexy and cheeky, funny and naughty and rude, and women have to just stand there and look pretty and say a couple of lines in all the classic texts, and I’m really not interested in that.”
Sir Ian McKellen famously said that reading Shakespeare is a waste of time, and that the bard is best enjoyed in the theatre. “Reading just reduces him to an examination subject,” McKellen told Radio Times Magazine in 2015. However, Romeo & Juliet is probably the play that is studied the most in British schools, and Josephine therefore hopes that it will resonate with a younger audience, particularly with the inclusion of local student actors: “She [Whyman] is really passionate that young people get a voice. Especially everything that happened last year with the referendum, she feels like young people have been let down by an older generation and that is definitely in the play, so it feels right that young people would come and watch it and relate to the characters on stage.” Theatre as a form is also uniquely engaging in the age of the smartphone. “We live in this world of screens where everyone’s got phones and iPads,” Josephine said, “and that’s what I love about theatre – it’s live and we are all in this room together, experiencing this story together.”
Romeo & Juliet will play at the Norwich Theatre Royal from Tuesday 29 January to Saturday 2 February.