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Romeo and Juliet

Fire and Brimming Passion,
and a Juliet to Die For

Royal Shakespeare Company, Park Avenue Armory, New York, N.Y.
Friday, August 5, 2011, C–107&109 (center left stalls)
Directed by Rupert Goold

This Romeo and Juliet began with a teen-age tourist taking an audio tour (the tour recording was the Chorus). It moved through a quickly entered fray with Benvolio (Oliver Ryan), as aggressive as the rest, soon tied to a stake to be burned. On the Prince’s entrance and command to drop their weapons, the combatants did so with much sustained clanging of steel hitting platform (even Lady Capulet had a knife hidden at her ankle). After the rest had relinquished their weapons, Capulet continued pulling out a hidden sword here, a dagger there, a knife up his sleeve, another dagger in his doublet and finally, after a pause and the other characters staring at him, yet one more knife, concluding with a “that’s it” shrug.

Five minutes had passed and we could see what kind of Romeo and Juliet director Rupert Goold had in store: a loose handling of the text, an infatuation with fire, a heavy dose of gimmickry, and lots of laughs. The first hurt, the second was superfluous, the third was a mixed bag, the last was on the mark.

But lest I sound too critical of what was mostly an enjoyable evening, I’ll start with Mariah Gale as Juliet, stellar in every way. She was impatiently petulant with her parents and given to tween passion, but she was also smart and drawn to Romeo (Dyfan Dwyfor) as a kindred spirit (as Taylor Swift would say, while Paris is, seemingly, the hot catch, nobody gets Juliet's humor like Romeo does). Gale revealed wholly new readings of lines I’ve been hearing and reading forever. She turned “love’s heralds should be thoughts” into a teen girl’s impatient tantrum, stomping her feet and hissing the lines. Her other two soliloquies, on the balcony and “Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds,” were rich in texture, the high-vaulting poetry become a budding woman’s deep meditations on personal truths versus social contexts (in the one) and true love versus lustful stirrings (in the other). Near the end of the balcony scene, as she and Romeo fell, kissing, to the floor, Gale purred, “Parting is such sweet sorrow,” emphasizing the word sweet rather than parting or sorrow as a teen-age girl discovering new facets of love. This remarkable performance reached a devastating climax as Juliet held the dagger to her belly and twice paused with genuine fright and doubt. Her expression steeled as she pondered a life that had been sterile before Romeo’s arrival and would be even emptier henceforth, and she made the plunge. Gale let us know, too, that thrusting a knife up through the belly really hurts, and she screamed out in writhing pain as she fell over onto Romeo’s body.

This production’s original Romeo, Sam Troughton, had injured his knee in this play shortly after its Park Avenue Armory run began, so understudy Dwyfor had taken over the role. He was a boy in love with love and just the kind of romantic and deep soul who could satisfy this Juliet. He ripped through the text at breakneck speed, but he also, like Juliet, gave surprisingly fresh readings to some of Romeo’s most famous lines. The night’s biggest laugh, in fact, came on “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks,” which Dwyfor cried as the alarmed Romeo scurried for cover.

Richard Katz played Capulet with a comic touch reminiscent of John Cleese’s Basil in Fawlty Towers, but he could rise to a seething rage that tottered on the edge of violence toward the ones he loved most (and Juliet truly was daddy’s little girl; the moment just before he learned that she refused to marry Paris was sweetly played). Forbes Masson was a fun Friar Laurence, proving through both his banter with Romeo and his counsel to both Romeo and Juliet (as well as to Paris) that this is one of the richest roles in the play. Another traditionally rich role, the Nurse, got a whole new reading by Noma Dumezweni, a woman of Caribbean heritage whose sassiness drew laughs while her general distrust of Montagues made her cautious about her dealings between Juliet and Romeo. However, she and Juliet did not seem to have a particularly close relationship. The Nurse’s recollections of the toddler Juliet earned only feigned smiles and rolling eyeballs from the teen Juliet. Thus, the Nurse’s betrayal in advising her to marry Paris was just another temper-tantrum spark for Juliet. That other most rich role, Mercutio, was endearingly played by Jonjo O’Neill with a cocky swagger. He gave the most expressive Queen Mab speech I’ve ever seen, until it degenerated into a roaring rant. Why do so many directors see Mercutio as a bipolar, manic depressive, an otherwise mentally unstable young man rather than just a witty, free-spirited daredevil? I read more Shaun White in the role than Charlie Sheen.

The two lovers wore modern dress—short skirts and tight jeans with high-top Keds for Juliet, baggy pants and hoody for Romeo—while the rest of the cast went about in Medieval Italian wear (albeit, using digital cameras and gas torches). This effectively demonstrated the generational divide between the lovers and their parents and also set them apart from their other kindred (i.e., Benvolio and Mercutio, Tybalt and Paris) as if the lovers represented a new world order. But the device took an awkward turn at the end when, upon Juliet’s death, the monument scene turned into a CSI episode, with cops investigating and the Capulets and Montagues (yes, Lady Montague wasn’t dead) now in modern clothes, too. Then the tourist appeared again, listening to the final stanza on his audio tour. It’s a "huh?" moment that rudely shoved aside the raw emotion of Juliet’s suicide. Whatever thematic statement Goold was making came across as Bobby Ewing’s dream, cheating me (and Gale, too) of Juliet’s grand moment.

There were a few such "huh?" moments. The Capulet dance was a bacchanalian, multicultural stompfest with a gyrating Juliet at the center (the upside was watching how and when the two lovers would connect). The two banishment scenes (Juliet with Nurse, Romeo with Friar Laurence) became a single mash-up scene (upside, none). Mercutio performed a miming skit of a man entering a woman through her vagina that was longer than the Queen Mab speech, time that would have been better spent in playing fully his altercation with Nurse. Lady Capulet had an openly sexual relationship with Tybalt; this was the third time I’ve seen such an interpretation, and I’m still waiting for a director to show me where Shakespeare intended this reading.

Then there was all the fire. An essay in the program pointed to the fire imagery and the role of Catholicism in the play and traced these themes to the role of fire in Catholic doctrine and the church’s history of persecution. This may just have been an excuse for Goold to play with fire, as it were. On the other hand, the arcing imagery I gleaned from watching this production was not generational divide or Catholic mysticism but the matter of identity, especially as it pertained to Romeo. In the balcony scene, he strove to be a man of his own self rather than that of a label, and twice he was berated for being effeminate, once by Friar Laurence and once by his own self. “What’s in a name?” is just one of many examples of how identity is a fundamental issue in this play, ranging from Mercutio’s “Now art thou Romeo” to the debate over whether the bird is a lark or nightingale. Even death could be counterfeited, until Juliet made it painfully real.

Eric Minton
August 8, 2011

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