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June 08, 2006

A strange, transitional play: Romeo and Juliet - RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

Posted by David Womersley

William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet
directed by Nancy Meckler
Royal Shakespeare Company
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
in repertory 6th April - 14th October 2006

David Womersley - Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford - reviews the RSC's production of Romeo and Juliet.

In Act 3, Scene 5 of Romeo and Juliet, Lady Capulet goes to Juliet to try to persuade her to marry Paris. Tybalt has just been killed by Romeo, and as punishment Romeo has been banished from Verona. Lady Capulet finds Juliet in tears, and assumes that they are the expression of grief for her murdered cousin (III.v.69-70):

Evermore weeping for your cousin's death?
What, wilt thou wash him from his grave with tears?
Juliet plays along, and her subsequent speeches are marked by an interesting ambiguity what she utters as hyperboles of love are understood by her mother as hyperboles of hatred. For instance, on being told that Tybalt's murderer was Romeo, Juliet says that "no man like he doth grieve my heart" (III.v.83), a statement which disguises the grief of love as the grief of resentment. Reminded by her mother that Romeo, though banished, still lives, Juliet exclaims "Would none but I might venge my cousin's death!" (III.v.86), which is at once depending on where you place the emphasis a greedy desire to monopolise vengeance, and at the same time a wish that vengeance might be postponed or eluded.

When Lady Capulet plays with the idea of having Romeo assassinated in Mantua by means of poison, Juliet expostulates in an eruption of desire which (such is the protean nature of language) can yet camouflage itself as the quintessence of vendetta (III.v.99-102):

O how my heart abhors
To hear him named and cannot come to him,
To wreak the love I bore my cousin
Upon his body that hath slaughtered him!
Shakespeare was from the outset of his career as a poet and playwright fascinated by the multiple potentiality of words and phrases, to the point where Samuel Johnson identified an obsession with word-play as his dominant characteristic:
a quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it.
But, as he matured as a playwright, he was increasingly able to transform that obsession from a mere delight in language to something dramatically functional. In Romeo and Juliet, a play about young love emerging out of the ingrained violence of the immemorial and in the play causeless hatred of the Montagues and the Capulets, there is clearly a deep fittingness in making single forms of words contain at once both love and revenge, just as do Verona and the stage.

In Romeo and Juliet love and hatred refuse to stay in place as pure opposites. The reciprocities of vengeance and desire resemble one another, and on stage the beautiful, terrible energies of loving and hating are entwined. The "two households, both alike in dignity" which feud in Verona are yet the product of iterated love and desire; Romeo in love becomes, quickly and curiously, an adept at violence, killing that "Prince of Cats" Tybalt, and dispatching Paris at the end of the play with a contempt and efficiency ("have at thee, boy!") which looks forward to Hamlet's killing of Polonius (one of a number of moments in the play when we can sense the germ of something which would be developed in Hamlet).

The equivocation between love and deadly violence is crystallised in the current Stratford production by a nice stroke of doubling. The actor who plays old Montague, Romeo's father, also plays the Mantuan apothecary who sells him virulent poison. In this play, the sources of love are also the sources of death an insight which Friar Laurence elevates almost into a philosophy(II.iii.9-10):

The earth that's nature's mother is her tomb;
What is her burying grave, that is her womb
Love and death are the perennial material of tragedy, and yet it has been a common experience that Romeo and Juliet, although it sets itself so squarely in the heartland of the genre, is in some elusive way an unsatisfactory tragedy; a play which leaves the audience touched rather than moved. This is perhaps because, at the end of the play, although the sense of waste (all those young deaths!) is prolific, it is a waste which is hard to weigh or measure. Romeo, says Old Capulet, is "a virtuous and well-governed youth" (I.v.67), but this is hardly exceptional praise. For instance, he surely falls a long way short of a tragic protagonist such as Hamlet, who according to Ophelia is (III.i.154-57):
The courtier's, soldier's, scholar's eye, tongue, sword,
Th'expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
Th'observed of all observers, . . .
Romeo and Juliet are little more than children when the play begins (although they undergo a cruelly accelerated "fearful passage" into adulthood). Tragedy either makes the death of children ancillary to the main action (as with the previous sacrifice of Iphigenia in the Oresteia, or the murder of young Macduff in Macbeth), or, as in the case of Euripides, runs the risk of sentimentality.

In the theatre this sensed deficiency in Romeo and Juliet seems often to invite over-interpretative direction, and the current Stratford production is no exception. The set and costumes evoke the eastern Mediterranean Cyprus, maybe, or possibly the Balkans (Aubrey Mellor's 1993 Brisbane production of the play was set in Bosnia) the modern world is, of course, alack, not short of locales in which "civil blood makes civil hands unclean" (I.prol.4).

But the Nurse (a bravura performance from Sorcha Cusack) and Capulet's servant both speak with broad Irish accents, and in place of the swordfights with which the play abounds in this production the actors engage in what looks like a cross between Riverdance and morris dancing. Ireland, of course, would be just as appropriate a setting for the play as Cyprus or the former Yugoslavia (although confessional violence surely has important points of difference from the family vendetta which provides the pretext for Romeo and Juliet). But it is confusing to have both possible settings present in the play. And why does Friar Laurence speak with an all-purpose Northern accent?

If the conceptualising of this production was distracting, it was also hampered by performances in the central roles which were serviceable, but no more, and which were shown up by strong performances from the Nurse, as already mentioned, and Old Capulet (Nicholas Day). One left the theatre reminded of how difficult this play is to stage, but also persuaded that even an ideal production would reveal how strange and transitional a play it is.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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