The Darkness Lurking Beneath: Romeo and Juliet

 

Guest blogger, Laura Marriott, writes…

One of the most thumbed plays in the Bodleian’s copy of the first folio, which can now be found online, is Romeo and Juliet. But what is it about this tragedy that continues to resonate so powerfully across the centuries? Typically seen as an all consuming romance, the play concludes with the deaths of two star crossed lovers, who could see no future that involved themselves without the other by their side. It has undoubtedly cast a shadow over popular ides of romance since its first showing, with many of its key themes surviving in popular romantic culture today. From Jane Austen’s tales of confusion being righted in marriage to the appropriate person to nearly every Hollywood rom-com with it’s happily ever after.

However surely this is missing the key part, the tragedy that made this one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. The multiple deaths and suicides from Romeo and Juliet seem to have fallen by the wayside with most romances now ending with the wedding itself, cutting off the flow of blood before it has even begun. If you puncture the surface of Romeo and Juliet you can see the darkness lurking beneath. Even before you get to the high mortality rate of its characters the play throws up troubling questions about the difference between Elizabethan society and our own.

Starting with the question of age. It is repeated throughout the play that Juliet will shortly be 14 when her parents think she is ready to marry, but no age is ever given for either of Juliet’s potential suitors, Paris and Romeo. It is perfectly conceivable that they were older than her, possible even in their twenties or thirties, which shines a slightly different light on our star-crossed lovers. This is rounded off by the fact that Romeo and Juliet do not actually see each other properly until they are married. When they first meet they are wearing masks, then it is by moonlight for the infamous balcony scene, and then Juliet is hidden behind a veil as they marry. However when you then consider how little time they spend with each other during the play, this is perhaps less surprising.

The only modern production that I have seen that brought the darkness to light and juxtaposed it beautifully with the central love theme was Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad, performed by the Iraqi Theatre Company at the RSC last year. This version had an aging Paris as would-be suitor and although this Romeo knew his Juliet (and had certainly seen her before) the innocence is retained. They are not physically intimate, and rely on the language of passion and elevating of objects – a silken scarf that passes between them – to illustrate their feelings for each other.

Set in a background of a family feud in war-torn Baghdad, Romeo and Juliet’s delicate love story is heightened by the sharp contrast of the insecure, dangerous setting. This is further emphasized by the use of real gun shots which shook the audience out of their preconceptions and made one really aware of the danger lurking beneath if these two were to pursue their love affair. There is no elopement and suicide for this pair of star-crossed lovers, but instead a deadly bomb blast. They die together having been unable to live together, and this ending, perhaps more than most, highlights that their fate is out of their hands, that there could be no happy ever after for Romeo and Juliet.

Laura Marriott

A Production of Many Colours: RSC’s Glistering King John

Guest blogger, Annie Martirosyan, writes…

RSC is always a treat when I am in fair Stratford-upon-Avon. I have seen performances I adored and performances I disliked. I could not predict what I would make of King John. I am mostly a purist when it comes to adapting Shakespeare and I heard King John was very modernized.

It was raining as I left the Shakespeare Institute. I intentionally forgot the umbrella at the guest house as I did not want to shun the English rain. I had little time for usual pottering in the foyer, so I grabbed my RSC Key ticket and ran to the Gallery.

There were balloons! They must burst onto the stage at some point, I thought. Something splendid seemed to be unfolding…

RSC's King John

Photo: Annie Martirosyan

Pippa Nixon appeared – in colourful tights, with bright red lipstick and a guitar. She was loud, modern-Englished, talking to us randomly and playing the guitar accompanied with her high-spirited singing. I laughed. I definitely was not in the early 13th century – but whatever it was, it looked like it was going to be a blast!

…The lights lit up, the cast rushed in, loud, colourful, fidgety. Blanche, blonde, and excellently portrayed by Natalie Klamar. Did Shakespeare conceive of Blanche as a modern stereotypical silly blonde? And so perfectly modern did Shakespearean English sound from the mouth of the Spanish princess!

Blanche and Dauphin’s wedding was the most hilarious I have ever witnessed, on and off stage. How naturally gifted a non-native director must be to combine modern posh pomp and Shakespeare’s tongue so gracefully and fluently! And all was to such a very appropriate music that the audience laughed themselves into stitches with delight at this musical comedy, while not hating this unimaginable interpretation of King John – indeed, nodding at the very wild and brilliant adaptation. This is what the Swedish director Maria Aberg achieved.

Alex Waldmann played King John – so young and yet so worthy to stand on RSC’s stage as an English king. Susie Trayling as a mad Constance, in a vibrant purple dress and with reddish curls, was noisy and chilling. Paola Dionisotti as a female Pandulph looked smart. John Stahl as Philip of France, in a trim aquamarine suit, was funny and appropriate. Sandra Duncan was hilarity itself as a motorcycling Lady Faulconbridge!  Strangely, the boy playing Arthur is not mentioned in the “King John cast and creative” on RSC’s website – he was apt and voiced, so young and so talented! They were all excellent.

Siobhan Redmond, in a long emerald silky dress and with her fiery head, a gift from nature – slightly incestuous, slightly silly but snobbish – was almost an ideal grandmother to Arthur.

The Bastard: you would not make much of the character, would you, other than term him a slimy, insolent illegitimate social climber or some such? Maria Aberg unsexed him, made her a central character and what’s more – had Pippa Nixon cope with this. And cope she did, top-drawer. She sprang onto stage as if from the street, with the casualness of her outfit, the resonant powerful voice spontaneously spitting Shakespeare’s lines from her throat and her being – this slim young actress besieged the audience. If Pippa Nixon can make so much out of such an unpleasing, neglected character and give shape to a plot Shakespeare cared not to define, I don’t doubt I’ll see her doing King Lear and Falstaff one day with similar dazzle!

…The lights went out, there was confetti in the air, Pippa Nixon was singing…

With balloons, hoops, pomp, a silly blonde, slight incest and comedy, RSC’s King John was an absolute delight. In a mingled play of mixed feelings and a plot that baffles a single-sentence definition, Maria Aberg’s exquisite production attempted not to confirm it as a black-and-white historical trauma, but succeeded in accentuating the jumbled plot with physical colours and emphasized characters, turning King John into a glittering show that was incredibly likeable! Indeed, the production deserves as many stars as there were balloons! Shakespeare would have been entertained.

The RSC’s King John was on at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon from April to September 2012.

You can read the longer review and the full writ on Avon’s stages on Talk Like Shakespeare website.

Annie Martirosyan
PhD Shakespeare researcher, linguist, English Language Lecturer
www.talklikeshakespeare.gobsplat.com

My Relevant Shakespeare

Guest blogger, Celia Smith, writes…

November 2008 is a significant date for me for two reasons: it was the first time I sought literary theory outside the classroom, and the first time I saw a Shakespeare play that was not in the rotation of classics with which I was familiar. The literary comment was a defence of T.S. Eliot’s anti-semitism by Jeanette Winterson.  The play was Tim Caroll’s 2008 The Merchant of Venice at the Royal Shakespeare Company, with Angus Wright as Shylock. I remember the two together because both were moments that offered ambivalent representations of the Jewish faith; something which interests me.

The set production of Merchant stood out to me in a way I hadn’t previously considered a Shakespearean performance. The floors, walls and furniture props took on hues of a musty, heat-burnt red – it reminded me of the Mediterranean marketplace setting and the gory blood money theme.  The experience marked a departure from the way I had watched Shakespeare plays as a child. When I was at school I had been used to uncritically sitting through versions of the plays you might typically be taken to see at that age (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Hamlet). I think the teachers hoped the trips would sow a seed of intellectual curiosity about the writer’s more obscure gold. Yet it’s a mark of my irrepressible juvenilia that plays like Henry VIII or The Winter’s Tale or Pericles will always exist for me outside the well-established set of Shakespeare texts that are – as they are for so many – imprinted permanently on my adolescent brain. It’s the language from the grand plays that have stayed with me all these years; the cadences of the lines that I have hung my heart on year after years of growing up.

I remember at university, the finalists in the years above me used Antony and Cleopatra and Henry V as they slogged through their exams. One girl wrote on Facebook as she approached the first night of her exams: “the bright day is done / And we are for the dark”. I remember when they were nearly done too because she wrote: “once more unto the breach dear friends!” Those lines returned to me as spurs of encouragement by the time I was doing my own finals. At that time I was comforted by the melodrama I could call on. When I felt like a misery-guts and I could see younger students still having fun, I would grumble: “I have of late – but wherefore I know not – lost all my mirth”. I would later eventually drop off after a sleepless night with grouchy resolve: “put out the light, and then put out the light”.

Nowadays working in my graduate job, I still find Shakespeare quotations lift my spirits. After a month working for Nightingale House (a Jewish care home for the elderly), and after a month waiting for social care reforms to come from the House of Commons, I was suddenly struck by how close the company’s talk of quality of care was making me think of Merchant’s speech on quality of mercy.

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest:

The Merchant of Venice, IV, i

In the light of the challenging future that faces the elderly community in Britain today, I feel that Shakespeare writes about care (or rather mercy) with a moral fibre that would make me gibber with guilt were I in Government. And that reminder of Merchant brings me back to that date of November 2008, when I was first exploring the world of literary theory. I came across this apologia for poetry in Winterson’s feature in The Guardian. Her argument for the relevance of T.S. Eliot is exactly how I feel about the relevance of Shakespeare:

So when people say that poetry is merely a luxury for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read much at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is.

 

Celia Smith

A Heroic King Lear

Guest blogger, Perry Mills writes…

In 1993 Adrian Noble directed King Lear for the RSC for the second time. I had seen his previous assault on the play in 1982, a production which contained a truly memorable performance by Antony Sher as the Fool. Apparently Harley Granville-Barker suggested to John Gielgud as he prepared to play the title role on one occasion, “Get yourself a light Cordelia.” Perhaps Michael Gambon would advise Lears designate, “Get yourself a mediocre Fool” since most reviewers seemed to focus on Sher, which was understandable.

Noble certainly appeared to have taken similar advice 11 years later; this time the spotlight was well and truly on the throne – and those words are not a cliché.

I had seen King Lear several times by then and adored the play, but it had never moved me to tears. And I felt sure it should.

I had been impressed and harrowed and shocked and fascinated at various times; but never powerfully moved.

And then I saw Robert Stephens take the role in 1993. Indeed, I saw him three times and on each occasion – sometimes at different moments, but always in the final scene – the critical faculties fell away and I just felt. Just felt… overwhelming grief and loss and pity.

Expectations were high: Stephens had given an award-winning performance as Falstaff in the Henry IV plays two years earlier with the same director. There was the sense that the actor had been waiting for the role all of his career – or perhaps it was the other way round. And Stephens was an ill man; in fact, the understudy had to perform the early performances. By all accounts, he was very good. This only added to the pressure.

It wasn’t a uniformly great production. Although on the whole the RSC had pulled in the First Team – Simon Russell Beale, David Bradley, Jenny Quayle, Owen Teale, David Calder – nevertheless there were some unnecessary things going on with a map on the floor and a globe which expelled red sand high upstage centre. There was real water in the storm scene, and that was impressive.

Truly centre stage, however, was Robert Stephens. I cannot convey the power of his performance by specific examples, however well he met the challenges – the curses, his exchanges with the Fool, his disintegration into madness, the heartbreaking meeting with Gloucester in Act IV, the waking up to Cordelia, the folly of his false hope in “birds i’th’cage”, his final appearance with the dead Cordelia. (Some audiences claim that he carried her on. However, each time I saw it a group of soldiers did the business whilst Lear fussed around them. Stephens was too weak to lift even Abigail McKern.) On this occasion, the whole was far greater than the parts. Particular moments simply contributed to the complete characterisation.

Stephens was an heroic actor, technically awesome (although a minor detail such as line accuracy was not always a priority) and prepared to take thrilling risks. However, more than anything else it was his capacity for utter simplicity that opened the floodgates – and I’m not talking about the rain effects.

Shakespeare can do every kind of emotional effect, and he does. But what is so thrilling, so extraordinary, and so moving is that capacity to reduce it right down. “Never, never, never, never, never” (V, iii).

And Robert Stephens understood that.

Perry Mills
Teacher, King Edward VI School
Stratford-upon-Avon