Romeo And Juliet
The Royal Shakespeare Theatre,
Going to see the recently refurbished ‘Jam Factory’ is something special. Going to see this particular production of Romeo And Juliet at that theatre is something very special. I don’t usually review plays on this website, however on this occasion I feel the need to try and capture a memorable performance.
This building was originally designed by a woman architect, Elizabeth Scott (who was a member of one of the great architectural families, that included Sir George Gilbert Scott and Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. Curiously I even spotted one of the latter’s famous telephone boxes right by the theatre). Architecture sometimes has a tendency to run in families, so does acting, and strangely enough I can also think of a few instances where the two art-forms overlapped (well there are a few examples of actors whose parents, siblings, uncles or cousins were architects). Unfortunately Scott’s auditorium was not considered satisfactory, but Rab and Denise Bennett’s redevelopment seems to have put that right. The new big thrust stage makes everything very immediate, almost like being in a fringe theatre; we are so close to the actors, as they frequently run on from one or other of the big raised gangways.
The play opens with a kind of prologue, as Sam Troughten comes on stage posing as a modern day tourist (complete with camera around his neck) visiting Romeo and Juliet’s tomb. At which the timeless events of the past then come to life. Swiftly many of the rest of the company enter, and promptly get entangled in a street fight. Quite spectacular in the middle of this big thrust stage. The rest of the company are basically more or less wearing something approximating Elizabethan dress. Jonjo O’Neill as Mercutio is among the more noticeable of these. The scenes immediately after the brawl are hardly memorable. About the only bit which stands out is Noma Dumezweni as the Nurse recalling how she weaned Juliet. The scene which eclipses those which precede it is Juliet’s first entrance, summoned by her father to be told of her first ball, and that she should be thinking of marriage. Mariah Gale makes her entrance, along one of those big gangways, portraying a nonchalant young teenager far more intent on playing with her toys, such as the bird on a rope which she is twirling, than on any thoughts of marriage. The evokes a mood similar to that of Juliet dancing with her ragdoll in the Russian ballet version (at least that’s the way Ulanonva did it with the Bolshoi). This version with the bird on a rope actually seems more convincing, a thirteen nearly fourteen year old into gadget toys, involving skill, rather than a doll. Mind you it’s possible some thirteen year olds do still play with their dolls a little. Though she speaks little in this scene, such is her stage presence that Mariah commands the audiences attention, even though Richard Katz has most of the dialog.
The ball itself is rather impressive, not least for the wild dancing, choreographed by Straun Leslie, performed by most of the company. Foremost among them is Juliet, in a simple black dress. Very much the leader of the company. She’s a good mover, and the positioning of the sets single moving platform on which she stands during a good deal of this dance, highlights her position. The number concludes with her sticking her tongue out a Romeo, whom she has been dancing opposite. It’s an interesting defiant playful gesture, reminding us that Juliet is still a young teenager, yet she is clearly rather taken with Romeo.
Later, the nurse explains to Juliet just who her admirer is. At this Mariah delivers one of those classic lines masterfully about her greatest love being her greatest enemy. The fabled Balcony scene, uses a balcony positioned just in front of the old proscenium arch. It appears to have no rails around it, yet Mariah seems sure-footed wandering around it. Still she is partly Australian, maybe that has something to do with it. At times she kneels down, and bends down to almost touch Romeo as Sam clambers up towards her. Once again Mariah makes her lines memorable, speaking with clear diction and integrity. Hers included one famous line which I didn’t actually realise was from this play, until I heard her say it “Parting is such sweet sorrow.”
In the town square or some such, the next morning. The Nurse, taking a message from Juliet to Romeo, encounters not only Romeo but several of his clansmen. Here although Jonjo O’Neill dominates the scene with his charismatic deliver of Mercutio’s wisecracks, nevertheless Noma Dumezweni manages to hold her own very well in the scene and not get overshadowed.
Noma does a pretty good job of standing her ground in the next scene too on returning to Juliet, although naturally our attention is firmly focused on Mariah Gale, who portrays Juliet’s curiosity and anxiety to hear The Nurse’s news rather well, carrying the audience with her in the moment, even though I’m sure many of us do know the play. Initially Mariah is alone on that big stage, waiting for The Nurse to return. One can’t help but notice her clear delivery of the lines “The clock struck nine when I did send the nurse”. Noma however, proves to be a good foil for her and also gets a pretty memorable line “Have you got leave to go to shrift today?” followed by “Then high you hence to Friar Lawrence’s cell....” In this scene Juliet comes across as little older than she did in her first scene, then she was a child, now she is very definitely a teenager out and about, wanting to do her own thing and get her own way.
Forbes Mason, as Friar Lawrence, first comes into his own with the scene in which Romeo and Juliet each arrive at Friar Lawrence’s cell to be married. Despite having both leads on stage, he manages to dominate much of the scene. One can’t help noticing that our leads are both wearing modern dress, the sort of jeans and jumper or cardigan attire that we might find teenagers (and young people a little older than teenagers) today wearing.
I think it was at this point that a bicycle got in on the action, was it hear that Romeo was riding one? I can’t recall for sure, only that it immediately put me in mind of that marvellous song Artiste Of The Day in the musical Six Pictures Of Lee Miller (I wish someone would revive that wonderful piece). The fight in which Romeo slays Tybalt starts off with Jonjo O’Neill dominating the action as the wise-cracking, sometimes a bit too jocular Mercutio. One can appreciate that he might be rather provocative, to say the least. It is also the only scene where Joseph Arkley, as Tybalt actually makes himself noticed, and impresses his character upon the audience. He may be one of those actors who will only shine if actors with a good deal of stage presence are not actually on the stage at the time.
The next memorable scene is carried by Mariah, when Juliet is told, by her nurse, of the latest street fight. Dressed in jeans and a dark cardigan with pockets, Juliet is no longer a child, but clearly a teenager and indeed almost a grown woman. After all she is married (even if the marriage has not yet been consummated). Hearing of the fight she is distraught, yet Mariah manages to convey this with conviction without going too car over the top. Our attention is focused on her as she kneels on the floor idly playing the a bundled rope ladder (which Romeo is to use later to climb her balcony).
By now the long first half is beginning to drag, if it were not for Mariah Gale’s performance being so worth watching we would be more than wishing for the interval. At long last Sam climbs up to Juliet’s balcony, and the audience gets it’s interval.
Act 2 opens the morning after, with Romeo putting on his shoes as he prepares to climb down the balcony, clearly having spent the night with his bride. Juliet is also up and about, clad in a black dress which might have been her ballgown from Act 1, or a nightdress. As Romeo departs he leaves behind his grey anorak, which Juliet puts on over her dress.
The next scene finds Juliet, her Nurse, and her parents all at breakfast. I’d certainly never expected this scene in the play to be performed in the innovative way it was here, with the characters in varying states of dress engaged in eating oranges. Christine Entwisle as Lady Capulate is in this scene wearing a dressing-gown, and no wig, so we see her short hair, and she is engaged in smoking a cigarette (presumably these days a herbal cigarette). Meanwhile Richard Katz as Lord Capulet cuts a commanding figure. He too is clad in a dressing-gown. As an actor he has good stage presence, at least in this scene, as the demanding gentleman of the house. However, our leading lady Mariah Gale still very much holds the larger part of the audiences attention, particularly when she reaches into the pocket of Romeo’s grey anorak, which she is still wearing, and produces a chocolate bar, which she proceeds to eat, instead of oranges. The scene is pretty dramatic, as Lord Capulet commands his daughter to marry Paris. This seems to involve an amount of rather silly stuff with the orange halves, getting squirted at one or other of the actors. A pretty silly scene, whose attempts at modernisation do not always quite come off. It’s redeeming feature is Mariah Gale’s sulky teenager of a Juliet. That alone is totally convincing, and the highlight of the scene. Even more memorable is her exit line, after both Christine and Richard have departed, when she informs The Nurse to tell her father that she has gone to Friar Lawrence to make confession of her bad behaviour towards her father.
There follows a scene between Friar Lawrence and Juliet, a powerful one, because Mariah and Forbes carry it.
Next we have Juliet playing the submissive woman to her father. Yet there is something so powerful about Mariah’s performance that as an audience we know that Juliet herself is in command of the situation, just as Mariah commands the stage. Brave and willing to do anything for the sake of her love for Romeo, including putting on an act of apparent submission. As she gets into the very formal white wedding dress we know she is no longer a child, nor even a truculent teenager, but very much a grown woman. She has a certain determined look on her face that as an actress is all her own. She carries the scene of Juliet taking the strange sleeping potion alone on the stage magnificently. There follows the Nurse’s discovery of Juliet apparently death in bed. At the closing of this scene Mariah gets to her bare feet and walks out along one of the big raised gangways as though in some kind of eerie trance, perhaps like a sleep-walker, for it is very strange, and yet somehow fits this moment in the play rather well.
Sam Troughton holds his own in Romeo’s scene in exile, when on receiving news of Juliet’s supposed death, though not Friar Lawrence’s message of it being a set up, he resolves to acquire a strong poison, from an apothecary, rather well played by Patrick Romer. One has to remember that back in those days, when there were very few Barbour-Surgeon’s, Apothecary’s were somewhat more than just chemists, they were perhaps almost a kind of substitute for a GP today. Only I am sure that even with the current proposed reforms of the NHS no GP in Britain today would be as irresponsible as the Apothecary in this play, after all it would surely violate the Hippocratic Oath.
We come to the play’s final dramatic scene, in the Capulet’s mausoleum. Juliet, still in her wedding dress, with bear feet is lying on the slab. Romeo on finding her apparently dead there decides to take his poison (which he drops into a plastic water bottle). While his back is turned the audience can just make out Mariah wriggling her toes a little, it’s a moment of tension, where the audience is almost willing Sam Troughton’s Romeo to turn round and look, except of course we all know that he won’t notice that Juliet is actually alive. Barely has succumbed to the poison of course she then wakes, realises what has happened. Immediately looks for the poison to consume it to, and there not being any left, picks up Romeo’s dagger and stabs herself in the waist instead. Of course Mariah, just as she has all evening carries the scene magnificently, Juliet is so much a woman now, rather than a teenager.
There follows the Prince and his followers (now largely also in more or less modern dress, or coats that could pass for modern, along with both sets of parents discovering what has been happening in the tomb. The Friar is arrested, and tells of what he knows. With both Sam and Mariah now playing dead bodies, Forbes Mason is the most charismatic actor speaking in the scene, as we come to the end of this dramatic tragedy.
All in all quote a tour de force, very much to the standard one would expect from The R.S.C. By and large the company perform well. A few had less clarity of diction than others. Generally the stage presence was reasonably good. Noma Dumeweni held her own as The Nurse, just like when she played The Cat in The Master And Margarite, and overall a rather better performance than her singing in Around The World With Cole. Jonjo O’Neil was a charismatic, if sometimes rather irritating Mercutio. Forbes Mason made an excellent Friar Lawrence, I did not realise before how dominant that character can be in the play. He really drives at least two major parts of the action forward. He actually comes across much more in this stage role than he did on television in The High Life. Of the principals Sam Troughton who may currently be the bigger name is generally satisfying as Romeo. However, his performance would not have as much impact as it does were it not for his leading lady, it is playing opposite Mariah Gale that gives his performance a certain lift. Meanwhile Mariah may not be as well known as Sam, but she is the star turn of the entire evening. Watching her in this evening one can see why some critics and theatre goers alike are rating her as one to watch. Someone who might have the potential to be among the great Shakespearean actors of our time. It’s really strange to watch her in this production, for I’ve seen her on stage a few times before over the past sixteen years. She was pretty good in The Tempest a few years ago (also for the RSC), but I’ve never seen her give as amazing a performance as she did tonight. The sort of performance that makes you think “Wow! maybe we could be witnessing theatrical history in the making?”. I can’t help but want to add here a little thank you to the friend who took me to see Juno And The Paycock sixteen years ago. I could never have imagined then that one day I would see one of the actresses from that little production in something like this! Great actors, after all have to come from somewhere, who knows what the future will bring. But one thing I can say for sure. I am very glad to have had the pleasure of watching this RSC production of Romeo And Juliet, directed by Rupert Gould and featuring Mariah Gale as Juliet on the stage of the newly transformed Royal Shakespeare Theatre.