If you want to see the definitive Romeo and Juliet, hurry to the RSC at Stratford. Peter Gill's superb production triumphantly embraces the vast Stratford stage. Gill demonstrates an artistic, and at times almost choreographic, skill in his staging which is as visually poetic as it is aurally poetic. The brick bare proscenium arch of the theatre frames a luscious Italian set of sun bleached stucco. Tattoo blue vignettes of renaissance architecture cling perilously to the crumbling facades of Veronese buildings; the mortar rendering as fragile as the social structure that pits wealthy trading family against family.
Centre stage is dominated by a two storey frontage, reminiscent of a merchant's villa in Venice, complete with trademark balcony. The boldness of this visual statement negates the facile question of how this production is going to be different. Far from attempting to anachronistically modernise an early modern text, Gill successfully returns the play to sixteenth century renaissance Italy; at the same time, the symmetry of the set almost imperceptibly echoes the layout of an Elizabethan playhouse stage. Characters are free to enter above and below, from the sides and from an ingenious trap, thus adding clarity of purpose to the action of the play.
The programme notes point out the innovation of this famous tragedy of Shakespeare's. We know the story so well from stage, stage musical and film, that we need to be reminded how strange it must have seemed to the original audience to see a tragedy unfolding around such ordinary people. No tyrants or emperors, kings, queens or military commanders; just the star crossed lovers, their irascible fathers, and the impossible interventions of a Friar and a talkative old Nurse.
The lovers are superbly played by Matthew Rhys and Sîan Brooke. Rhys is a wildly brooding youthful melancholic, more at home with a favourite book than with his braggardly compatriots. Of course, one glimpse of the delightful young Juliet and this sullen adolescent is metamorphosed into a passionate young heartthrob, willing to scale any heights to gain his love. Rhys is totally convincing as the young Romeo, restlessly energetic, oozing youthful and unchannelled testosterone. It is not Rhys who disappoints us as he so callously deals with his love after a night of satiated passion. It is the reality that Rhys has created that reminds us of the intensity of forbidden love and the melancholia that accompanies its final attainment.
Brooke is the epitome of a girlishly beautiful Juliet. The skill with which she manipulates her father in time of need, and the expressiveness of her vows of love contrast with the doom which is obviously dogging her every step. Her father, Capulet, is played with dynamic force by David Hargreaves. Hargreaves gives an exciting performance as the doting father desperate to make the most fortuitous match for his young daughter, blissfully unaware that she may have made her own choice of lover. The tirade he unleashes on the unsuspecting Juliet turns Hargreaves literally red with rage. Hargreaves's anguish is tangible; his dismay and desperation heart stoppingly realistic.
Sion Tudor Owen plays Montague, the patriarch of the opposing family. Owen likewise delivers difficult speeches with wonderful ease. Both families fall under the wrath of the Prince of Verona, Escalus -- the scales of justice. Leo Wringer deftly manoeuvres himself among the warring parties, his natural dignity and grace, and wonderfully emotive face, creating a character of great power and imposing authority.
The families are waited on by a motley crew of servants. Matt Cross, Anatol Yusef and Edward Clarke are unbelievably watchable as the slide and scurry, serve and satirize the toffs who they call masters. It is this vast underplot created by Gill to fill those unobtrusive and deceptively simple looking scene changes which makes the evening flow with such delightful energy.
The sorrowful events unfold because of the unfortunate interference, or lack of it, from Friar Laurence and Juliet's Nurse. John Normington, a wonderful actor who never fails to delight, portrays the Friar with simple humility and humour tinged with a sorrow that comes from worldly knowledge. Normington allows us to sense the excitement and the impending doom. We feel his pain as events take over and he is left accused of a wrong he so earnestly sought to put right.
However, the audience applause for June Watson's Nurse was justifiably deserved. Watson's Scottish drawl and interminably long speeches, in which she ramblingly reminisces about her wet nursing days with children at her breasts, are a joy. Watson bridges the gap between humanity and clown, preserving her fading female dignity in the face of youthful disdain. Her inability to succinctly get to the point is as important to the over-all plot as her stories are unnecessarily long. Watson's fine Nurse complemented a fine production.
The sword fights directed by Terry King were realistic, dangerous, and totally convincing. A brawling free for all in which rapiers and daggers, fists and knees, all went flying on a fearfully packed stage. The fights were great, and they encapsulated the tone of the production. Gill's superb staging left the eye searching for new delights. Every character had a life to live and an opinion to give. At the same time, the focus was always firmly on the tragic narrative. The actors and the audience were well served.
It is certainly not an insult to say that this production, above all others, will serve to stimulate a passion in Shakespeare for those studying it at school. So often coachloads of students arrive to see a play which bears little relationship to their studies and more to the vanity of the artistic force at its centre. If you want to see Shakespeare performed by consummate professionals, and a play that, although tragic at its conclusion is a delight from beginning to end, see Romeo and Juliet at the RSC.
Kevin Quarmby © 2004