When it played in Stratford last year, Michael Boyd’s Romeo and Juliet quickly became known as the Plague production. This was because, taking as its cue, Mercutio’s curse of a “plague on both your houses”, and the fateful pestilence that prevents the delivery of Friar Lawrence’s letter to Romeo, it purported to show a Veronese populace living in dread of disease. It is somewhat of a surprise then to find that, apart from a scene where actors wear scarves to protect their faces, there are very few references to sickness.
Would that were true of the audience. On the night I attended, there appeared to be a visit by TB Sufferers’ Anonymous: a few discreet coughs one can cope with, a mass outbreak of constant hacking is disconcerting for everybody. Pity the poor actors in trying to compete with the background. Some of the tenderer scenes were literally inaudible – not a comfortable experience for anyone. It’s fair to say, however, that the principal characters might have struggled to gel in an audience of total silence. The sad fact is that there is little chemistry between the two.
Alexandra Gilbreath’s Juliet is a breathless, passionate young lady, rather too sexually-knowing, whose husky voice bears a remarkable resemblance to a young Felicity Kendal’s. However, there are some very strong moments: the “wherefore art thou Romeo speech” is delivered in an adolescent burst of frustration and, on the whole, Gilbreath manages to give a favourable impression.
Unfortunately, one can’t say the same about David Tennant’s Romeo. His is a coarse, badly-spoken, awkward performance, the lines coming out in such a rush that one is almost inclined to get the play finished before last orders. Already this season, Tennant has shown himself a fine comic actor; nonetheless, he still has a way to go before he can take on tragic parts with such aplomb.
But there are compensations in the supporting players. Adrian Schiller’s Mercutio is superb, brilliantly capturing the sardonic humour of the part. His lugubrious face is ideally suited for comedy, but here he maintains a presence throughout as he and a ghostly Tybalt watch the action from the sidelines.
Schiller is ably supported by Des McAleer’s noble Friar Laurence and Ian Hogg’s Capulet. The latter is especially strong in the scene where he forces Juliet into her wedding – a terrifying show of parental strength.
This is a production with some considerable strengths and some glaring weaknesses. It will almost certainly get better in time – and is certainly considerably better than the National’s disaster last autumn.
Note: This review dates from July 2000 and the production's original run at Stratford-upon-Avon's Shakespeare Theatre.
Something odd has happened to Romeo and Juliet in the last few years. Because of a few films, a musical and loads of media hype, this early work, written before the playwright reached his mature powers, has become Shakespeare's best-known and best-loved play - especially amongst the young.
If you liked the film Shakespeare in Love and want to see this play on stage for the first time, Michael Boyd's production is a good place to start. But it's not just Romeo and Juliet as 'a wedding and five funerals' - this is an intelligent production which will give all sections of the audience food for thought.
Although Shakespeare envisaged Juliet as 13 and Romeo as 14 years of age, Alexandra Gilbreath and David Tennant are perhaps twice as old. Such casting is common but some actors, like Judi Dench and John Stride back in 1960 and Ray Fearon and Zoe Waites in 1997, manage to capture their adolescent angst. Gilbreath and Tennant make no attempt to do this and play the lovers as twenty-somethings for all they are worth.
The production is stark and spare; the violence urgent and brutal; the impact instantaneous. Played in a bare space between sweeping, monumental grey stone walls, in unfussy Renaissance costumes, the lyricism and romanticism of the play is muted. Tennant speaks the verse well, without ever sacrificing meaning or immediacy. Gilbreath has subtlety in the soft register of her voice, but is somewhat strident in the louder.
Adrian Schiller's Mercutio is disappointingly prosaic and Eileen McCallum's tough Scottish nurse is more feisty then garrulous. Des McAleer brings vocal power and intelligence to Friar Lawrence. The production's strength is not in the playing of individual characters, but in its pacey and direct treatment of the strong and complex narrative. Shakespeare's compelling story gallops along and carries the audience with it.
For the first three-quarters of the evening, this is a conventional production - solid and satisfying. The last section is unusual and engaging, where the action is watched over and manipulated by the ghosts of Mercutio and Tybalt - old enemies united in death. When a supernatural plague thwarts Friar Lawrence's plot to bring Romeo and Juliet together in life, these ghosts engineer the final tragedy, the death of the tragic lovers, so that they can be reunited beyond the grave.
Though far from a conventional 'happy ending', one has a much stronger sense here of Romeo and Juliet spending eternity in each other's arms than in any other production I've seen. Such a death seems a preferable option to life in so brutal and violent a society.
Romeo and Juliet opened at Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 5 July 2000 (previews from 23 June) and continued there in repertory until 7 October 2000.