I was ultimately quite pleased to have seen the new production of Romeo and Juliet at the RSC. However, I do have some serious quibbles. Romeo and Juliet is not really an intellectual show and I felt that Erica Whyman was imposing too much contemporary meaning onto the presentation of the text.
The feminist aspect was not a problem with casting the Prince (Beth Cordingly) who was strong and convincing as a leader of Verona; and some of the other minor parts, also casting male roles with women, worked; but I felt that casting Charlotte Josephine as Mercutio was a major mistake. Whyman argues strenuously for this decision in the programme; and the bristling, witty, astringent and sometimes sentimental Mercutio is hardly Macho Man. But he is not a woman. He is, after all, one of the boys, and not entirely free of misogynistic attitudes. For me, the gender fluid turning of Mercutio into a woman, however butch and wanting to be part of the gang, just caused more problems than it solved and created an ongoing dissonance throughout the first part of the play.
I also wondered about all the young students in the audience seeing the play for the first time and how they might take it. I do think that this particular bit of casting distorts the relationship with Romeo. I also felt that the insistence on contemporary knife crime in London and gang warfare was overdone and anyway undercuts the fact that the Capulet and the Montagues are not gangs but supposedly top ranking aristocratic families in a political war of a kind that is more like Brexit.
Nevertheless, as the play progressed I did not think about any of this very much. The story is beautiful, totally captivating and beautifully constructed; the language is superbly poetic and moving. Bally Gill was a very attractive and engaging Romeo; and his Juliet, Karen Fishwick, was spirited and grew from a believable fourteen-year-old just starting her life into a passionate young woman overcome by the experience of truly falling in love. Rather like Desdemona in Othello; she is someone who is so good and innocent that she cannot quite combat a Fate that defeats her.
The roles of the Nurse (Ishia Bennison) and Friar Laurence (Andrew French) were especially strongly played. While I was uncomfortable with some of the staging of the first half of the play, the second half had good pacing and momentum; and the confrontation of Juliet with her father, Capulet, played by Michael Hodgson, was particularly powerful. Her anguish and confusion and his bullying self-righteousness were almost shockingly portrayed with the role of Lady Capulet (Miriam Haque) as the kind of submissive, conformist wife who cannot question her husband’s authoritarian and damaging stupidity coming to a suitable culmination. I liked the contemporary design and costumes by Tom Piper, though I found them a bit unspecific as to context.
In the end, this is a good and solid introduction to the text, a real tragedy of young lovers caught in a vortex of adult duplicity and anger, and despite my own discomforts with some of the approach, the night I attended the audience was completely convinced by the show.
- By William Shakespeare
- Director Erica Whyman
- Producer: Royal Shakespeare Company
- Cast includes: Bally Gill, Karen Fishwick, Ishia Bennison, Andrew French, Michael Hodgson, Mariam Haque
- Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon
- Until 19 January 2019