Adorning Shakespeare’s Globe theatre’s ornate and columned stage loom two large blackened missiles directed toward the soggy groundlings who are fighting the rainy elements on the day of this performance. This is my first play experience in the classic Globe and what better play to to take in than Shakespeare’s iconic story of teenage star-crossed love, Romeo and Juliet. Romeo and Juliet is among Shakespeare’s most accessible plays for modern audiences – with its classic themes, generally comprehensible dialogue and popular study in secondary schools (not to mention numerous pop culture adaptations), most theatergoers have the requisite knowledge to follow and enjoy to play. So, how you may ask, does one render Shakespeare’s tragic ode to forbidden love incomprehensible? Just ask Daniel Kramer, director of the Globe’s current production, which is one of the last productions in Emma Rice’s controversial (and soon-to-be-ended) stint as Artistic Director of the Globe. Kramer has transformed a delicate and beautiful tale into a brash, loud, overdone farce, frenzied in its attempts to be relevant in a 2017 world. Sadly, Romeo and Juliet left this reviewer departing with a whisper of “go wisely and slowly – those who rush stumble and fall” on my mind.
In Kramer’s adaptation, the Montagues and Capulets are white faced clowns more at home in the Insane Clown Posse than in a Barnum and Baileys Circus.* Romeo, a goth teen with a sullen demeanor, pines for Rosaline while his friends Mercutio, a female in this production, and Benvolio bounce about with padded clubs and entice their love-lorn friend to join them in crashing a Capulet party. It is difficult to see why Romeo and his friends would have any interest in crashing the amateurish, YMCA-addled disco that Juliet’s father (who swings both ways in this confused retelling) is throwing, yet, Romeo manages to spot and fall for the young Juliet (and she for him) at the party. However, the two are separated through their family’s hatred for one another and ultimately meet their demise. If ever there was a tale of love failing to conquer all, Romeo and Juliet is it.
Unfortunately, Kramer’s production sucks much of the love and the sorrow out of Shakespeare’s work, leaving only a perplexing shell of a narrative devoid of passion. Setting aside the bizarre YMCA dance number at the Capulet party, Mrs. Capulet’s apparent drinking problem, and Paris’ overly bronzed and stiff appearance, the factors leading to this result are many. For example, the heart-racing sword fights throughout classic Shakespeare have been replaced in the play with clubs and guns, which, while perhaps an attempt at social commentary on gun violence, are an unnecessarily modern update that fails to align with Shakespeare’s words. Case in point. Romeo shoots himself at the end of the play, so why is Juliet trying to drink poison from his lips? Moreover, the staging of the fight sequences fails to develop tension, which is problematic given that Capulet/Montegue violence is central to the plot. The Tybalt and Mercutio confrontation feels awkwardly bombastic with Tybalt armed with a handgun and Mercutio jumping around the stage with a little bat, seemingly unfazed for an inordinately long time after being shot. True, Shakespeare wrote a prolonged death speech for the mortally wounded Mercutio, but Mercutio (portrayed by Golda Rosheuvel) does not even appear to flinch at her gunshot wound. In fact, she seems quite energetic and jovial until her last breath, leaving this reviewer to wonder if she was dead or had just fallen asleep from exhaustion. Hardly meaty social commentary on the plague of gun violence.
One of the aspects of Kramer’s production that I was most looking forward to was the casting of a female Mercutio. Mercutio is a free spirit, a joker, and a bit of a bro in most productions of Romeo and Juliet. In an interview, Kramer stated that he was interested in the relationship between Mercutio, Romeo and Tybalt and the sexuality between the three of them, which would have been an interesting approach to the tale had it actually been explored in the play. Alas, while it was refreshing to see a woman play a carefree and offensive character rather than being relegated to a virginal beauty role, Kramer did very little if anything to suggest sexual interest between Mercutio and the men in her life. Rather than exploring the femininity of the character or using the gender change to transform the character, the character of Mercutio simply came across as a male role that happened to be played by a female. It was a great disappointment indeed.
Adding to the disappointment was the fact that this entire production felt conceived in the mind of a 12 year old boy. While Shakespeare never shied away from bawdy humor, Kramer and his assembled players cannot seem to deliver a joke or set a scene without making tediously repetitive and, frankly, uncreative dick jokes. Over and over and over again and hammed up in such a way that they are completely devoid of humor. The choice is amateurish and does not suggest that the creative forces behind Romeo & Juliet understand the material well enough to both make it accessible to a modern audience and preserve the integrity of the play itself.
Thankfully, the production was not entirely devoid of creativity or intrigue. Kramer did a respectable job of making the production feel immersive, with the characters galavanting among the groundlings (delivering more laughs than all of the dick jokes combined), and the imposing warheads in Soutra Gilmour’s stage design along with Charles Balfour’s lighting design created an atmosphere of oppression. Moreover, the play’s opening, depicting the birth of the play’s central characters, is both compelling and heart-wrenching as the laboring mothers deliver, not babies, but infant-sized coffins. It is both an eerie sight and a reminder of the young lives lost throughout warring regions where reaching adulthood is hardly a given.
Regarding the cast, the performances suffered under the heavy handed direction and staging of the production. Subtlety thrown to the wind, nearly every action and gesture was prolonged and overacted. This is not to say that there were not highlights. Edward Hogg’s Romeo was a charming mix of youthful friskiness and melancholy, while Kirsty Bushell’s Juliet had a childlike humor about her that the audience responded well to. Ricky Champ’s Tybalt terrifies in his quasi-mad brutality, but Champ’s portrayal is so frenzied and callous, like an abused pitfall waiting to pull away from its binds and attack, that the character’s death comes as a relief. Moreover, the reason behind his alarming behavior is never quite clear. Rosheuvel’s portrayal of Mercutio suffers from the same stagy interpretation. While she delivers comedic moments (e.g., a drunken stripping sequence that got the biggest laughs of the night), on the whole the performance is lively but exhausting.
As a novice Globe theatregoer, I find myself firmly in the camp in support of Rice’s departure from the theatre as artistic director after sitting through Romeo & Juliet. Modern interpretations of Shakespeare are welcome, and I have seen many brilliant interpretations proving both the importance and artistic merit of bringing Shakespeare into the modern age and making it accessible to audiences.** However, Romeo & Juliet both failed to do justice to its Shakespearian namesake and somehow managed to make one of Shakespeare’s most digestible artistic endeavors nearly unpalatable and, more importantly, less understandable.
*Apparently ICP recently announced a tour, so these references are not entirely antiquated (yet).
**I could rave all day about the innovative and engrossing production of Hamlet starring Andrew Scott currently running at the Harold Pinter Theatre.