Theatre review: Romeo and Juliet at the RSC
Romeo and Juliet
Royal Shakespeare Company, 2018
Written by William Shakespeare
Director: Erica Whyman
Cast: Bally Gill, Karen Fishwick, Charlotte Josephine, Andrew French, Raphael Sowole, Michael Hodgson, Miriam Hague, Ishia Bennison, Josh FinanOpus Arte DVD
Regardless of its setting or interpretation, there are a few constants that remain relevant in any production of Romeo and Juliet. Most obviously it's a play about young love at its purest and most idealistic, a violent raging uncompromising and defiant love that has none of the insecurities of the more mature years relationship in something like Antony and Cleopatra. In that respect Romeo and Juliet is always modern, those human characteristics always true regardless of the period. What is also true of the play is that more than being just a romantic melodrama, the war between the Capulets and the Montagues make it also about families. For raging youth in the present day gangs are another form of family, with knife crime an issue now as much as duelling and feuds were in the past. As usual with Shakespeare we find so little has changed and much remains true.
Erica Whyman's direction for the Royal Shakespeare Company's 2018 production of Romeo and Juliet brings the play into that modern world where it shouldn't sit at all uneasily, and yet it doesn't entirely hit home. In one respect it does very much highlight the powerful contrasts in the play, capturing the high-flown romanticism of love in extremis where cupid's wings make the young lovers float in the air and the more down-to-earth reality of life on the streets of ancient Verona, or any modern city, when that youthful ardour is turned towards violence, where youthful passions turn men into beasts "that quench the fire of your pernicious rage with purple fountains issuing from your veins".
The RSC production of Romeo and Juliet has that fire of youth and energy, which is at least half the battle. The rest is down to interpretation, direction and acting, and in some of those areas it doesn't really convince. The idea of seeking to showcase women more in the play and redress an imbalance is not a bad thing, as Phyllida Lloyd's all-female Donmar Trilogy (Julius Caesar, Henry IV, The Tempest) with Harriet Walter demonstrated most recently. Particularly in this play where in Juliet Shakespeare indeed marks out women in a much fairer light than, for example, Kate in The Taming of the Shrew. Having the Prince played by a woman and issuing the above "You men, you beasts" quote should also strike a different perspective on the roles and nature of men and women, but in practice it doesn't seem to make that much of an impression.
If partially reassigning gender roles suggests another way of highlighting the nature of men and women and the nature of the play into the contrasts and between raging love and raging violence, the casting of Charlotte Josephine as Mercutio is likewise intended to blur lines somewhat. Looking and behaving in a gender-neutral way, she's a central figure belonging to neither Capulet nor Montague families. Her aggressive shouty and rush delivery however fails to get across the dark beauty of the poetry in the play, and although the performance is committed here and with the other principals, there is also a lack of engagement in the delivering the full import of some of the play's famous lines and monologues and in crucial places it fails to bring the conviction needed for the famous dramatic developments that take place in the play.
There are however one or two areas where Whyman's direction does succeed in bringing that necessary connection and engagement with the youth of today. It's not so much in the recasting of one or two male and female roles as in the ethnic diversity of the cast and the regional accents that deliver the text. It might sound like tokenism - and the RSC can be guilty of this in other productions - but it's very relevant to the multicultural and multi-regional make-up of modern cities and to the character of life in gangs. What the RSC production also recognises and succeeds in getting across well is the fact that, despite its reputation, there's more violence than romance in Romeo and Juliet, as many threats and insults as loving declarations, and of course, as Friar Laurence warns "these violent delights have violent ends".
Reflecting the rather stripped-down nature of the inner city, there's not much in the way of set dressing in this production. Rather than a romantic Verona balcony there's a rotating rusted steel cube container which has to make do for all the scenes, open on two sides when it needs to be a room or a dark alley, rotating to form a kind of tower or bunker. It's fairly basic and there's not much in the blocking to bring the drama to life other than a lot of movement and some pumping techno beats to tap into that violent energy and its need for release. With the mad fervour expressed by a well-matched Bally Gill and Karen Fishwick as Romeo and Juliet, this serves well enough for the first half of the play but its limitations show in the change of pace required to bring about the dramatic developments of the second half.
In its place however Whyman comes up with another of those seemingly minor but effective touches to represent the "nest of death" that surrounds Romeo and Juliet at the conclusion, reminding us that the impact is far greater than the tragedy of the young lovers. We see not just Romeo and Juliet end their lives, but are reminded of devastating impact of the pre-warned violent passions now unleashed. As well as Paris, the ghosts of Tybalt and Mercutio are also brought back to the stage, giving the drama a finale that alerts us to the fact that there is a body-count here in Romeo and Juliet which is not far removed from the one in Hamlet, and that the warning it has for youth is just as important to bring to the present day.
The RSC's 2018 production of Romeo and Juliet is released on DVD only by Opus Arte. There is no High Definition version available on physical media, but it should be available in HD on streaming sites like Marquee.TV. As it is, the NTSC resolution in Standard Definition means that the DVD image fares poorly on a large HD screen, the image quite soft, lacking solid blacks and good colour definition. Within the SD limitations however, there are no actual technical issues. The Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1 soundtracks are clear and punchy, and optional English subtitles are provided. The DVD is dual-layer and region-free. Extra features on the disc include short interviews with the principal actors and information on the community cross-cultural aspect of the production. A full-length director's commentary is provided and Erica Whyman also provides notes on her intentions for the production in the DVD booklet.