The Royal Shakespeare Company has taken Shakespeare’s most famous love story and turned it into an adaptation beyond the realms of the ordinary. When I heard they were coming to Nottingham on the national tour I eagerly bought a ticket, anticipating the moment when I would finally be able to see Romeo and Juliet performed live in theatre. I was not disappointed!
I arrived at the show with a preconceived idea of what I was going to see. As an English student, I have read Shakespeare’s works, including this play, countless times. I had seen many film adaptations (Gnomeo and Juliet surpassing all others by far), but had yet to see a traditional theatre performance of the story. You can imagine my surprise when I realised that the show was not in fact a traditional performance, but a reimagining of the love story as an edgy and contemporary focus on the 21st century youth culture and knife crime. This transformation of a classic to a fresh and blade-sharp production was one that truly deserved the standing ovation and loud applause it received.
The Director chose to cast young people from across the country which I thought was a positive change since often older actors are cast to play these lovesick teenagers. I have to say that Charlotte Josephine was stellar in her performance of Mercutio as she made it completely her own. She reinvents the character as someone who is a tough, feisty female with a buzz cut and whom is always ready to fight. This cross-gender casting shows that male roles reinvented for a woman can work just as well.
It’s difficult to imagine how a stage design for Romeo and Juliet wouldn’t be opulent and extravagant in its detail. Nonetheless, Tom Piper’s bare stage included just one rotating metallic cube that opened up on two sides with a support ladder for when the actors would stand on top of the cube. It did not convey the usual essence of courtly romance but it did heighten the edgy and contemporary focus of a love story set in a modern day youth culture that inhabits all sorts of crime. This versatile structure became the focal point that moulded the performance together – acting as the balcony in which the two protagonists first confess their adoration, then as the Friar’s cell where they were married, and finally the tomb in which they die. It’s dark and heavy exterior became a constant warning that this union was always doomed.
The modern street clothing, with its grey and black colour scheme, ripped jeans, and silver-studded t-shirts, also connects the play to an increasing issue of knife crime and attacks. Right from the opening seen the audience sees the stage begin to fill with boys and girls ranging from early teens to mid-20s in black jeans, leather jackets, and hoodies, all of whom were carrying knives. From this initial entrance to the stage you could tell that most audience members didn’t expect such a new take on the play. It was definitely a case of love or hate…in this instance most people loved it! This costuming worked well as it made the characters more relatable and the modernised element was fully expressed. Whilst Shakespeare’s main themes and plots are still very relevant today, changing the whole set and design to mimic our society only elevated the ‘here and now’ atmosphere.
Sophie Cotton and Jeremy Dunn were the music designer and sound designer respectively and did so in a techno way. It made the Capulet party feel more like Rock City than a grandiose first encounter of the star-crossed lovers. I enjoyed this aspect of the music as it drowned out the overtly serious nature of the scene and made it feel more plausible – it’s exactly how two people would probably meet today.
Lastly, one of the most stand out elements was the way the relationship between Romeo and Juliet was conveyed. Romeo, played by Bally Gill and Juliet, played by Karen Fishwick was really convincing. Even better was the fact that they were of different races, something that was noticeable in a lot of
characters on the stage but that only added to the story and the positive forward trajectory that the Arts is moving towards in terms of diversity and inclusivity. The heavy lines about desire, death, marriage, familial woes, and love were made lighter by the charismatic Gill who added comedy to many parts. As someone who adores theatre and literature and is a woman of colour, I was left smiling at the fact that I saw one of the most iconic fictional characters be played by a fellow person of colour. It gave the performance a breath of fresh air and I cannot wait to see more diverse performance by the RSC.
Despite being written around 1595, Director Erica Whyman executed this original play into a wonderfully fresh and engaging performance that highlights important issues about our world today. From the minimalistic set, to the cool costumes, to the inclusion of young actors from schools around the country, this show most certainly ranks highly in the many adaptations of Romeo and Juliet that I have seen. I urge anyone reading this to go see the remaining performance if they can. The next stops for the RSC are the Cardiff New Theatre and the Theatre Royal Glasgow in March. I am sure you too will find yourself wanting to see it all over again!
image 1: writer's own
image 2: Royal Shakespeare Company Nottingham