Be it Hamlet or The Tempest, Macbeth or Midsummer, the challenge that comes with performing one of Shakespeare’s more famous plays (as opposed to something like Timon of Athens) is that the audience most likely has a strong knowledge of the play already. So, how do you maintain their interest and provide something new? Well, there are many options; putting an emphasis on particular themes, staging it in a setting that provides new context, or using imaginative tech, staging, and lighting choices. Or, if you are an already established theatre with a target audience that wants to have a Shakespeare experience rather than see an interesting theatre production, you follow the same path that Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre did in their 2019 production of Romeo & Juliet. (Now available on YouTube until February 2021!)
So, sing along if you know the words! The children of rival families in West Verona fall helplessly in love, within moments of meeting, and vow to get married. They do so despite the family rivalry, but the rift between them is too strong, and they find themselves facing heartbreaking losses, desperate decisions, and the ultimate moment of youthful tragedy.
To borrow a line from my prefered Shakespeare play, “that were she other than she is, she were unhandsome; and being no other but as she is, I do not like her”. I was not a fan of this production; it combined a lack of ambition, a limited creative vision, and a shockingly abysmal series of performances which only served to make me long for the preemptive deaths by the end of act two.
The acting in this production feels more like a high school production than anything professional. It’s either sucking all of the emotion out of some truly passionate scenes (I’ve never seen the balcony scene so poorly executed), or results in making all of the characters mildly detestable or forgettable. A clear example is the portrayal of Mercrucio, usually one of the most entertaining characters, but here he is performed like Jean-Raphel out of Parks and Recreation. Meanwhile, neither Tybalt nor The Friar has any presence, the nurse is played like a forgotten Mamma Mia character, and crucially, neither Romeo nor Juliet seem to be able to deliver passion, chemistry, or anything other than bland, unchanneled eagerness.
You may think that I’m being overly harsh, and that this kind of production is supposed to be about getting young people interested in Shakespeare. Well, even then, I’d say it fails at that too. Most of what makes the play entertaining (it’s emotional language and it’s progressing tragedy) is either forgotten or is rushed to the point of invisibility, and what focus there is seems to be entirely on slapstick humour and shouting. These aren’t bad characteristics, they work well in something like Much Ado About Nothing or Twelfth Night, but they don’t belong in Romeo & Juliet. It’s not a slow-paced play, there are plenty of fight scenes, dramatic plot twists, and engaging dialogue, and I think it’s a bit patronising to assume that young audiences will only find it engaging if someone is running around the stage shrieking. It doesn’t even really serve to educate children on the play; many of the most famous and meaningful scenes and speeches are massively cut down, so they’re over before they can even be enjoyed. More time is given to a party scene dance number than Romeo learning about the death of Juliet, which begs the question: what are you learning here that you wouldn’t get from reading SparkNotes?
For some younger children, I’m sure that they could find the piece entertaining, if not particularly memorable. But Romeo & Juliet is a play that tells you the ending within the first two stanzas; it’s not about knowing the story. It’s about following the emotional connections between the characters, and feeling a genuine sense of moving loss by the end. When the production is unable to do that, particularly when it has both the talent and resources that Shakespeare’s Globe can offer, I’d say that that constitutes a failed show. There are plenty of good Shakespeare plays available online that are far more worth your time, and I can’t tell you that you’ll get anything out of watching this one.
Words by Mischa Alexander.
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