One of my favourite Romeo and Juliet references is by Zach Braff on his blog:
If you are in NYC, go see the new production of “Romeo and Juliet” in Central Park. The performances are really good and the set is AMAZING! Unfortunately, the production I saw got rained out just as Juliet drank the potion, but I think I can guess how it ends: she wakes up just as Romeo arrives at the tomb and they live happily ever after. Man I love romantic comedies!
It’s funny because Shakespeare plays are so ubiquitous that there can be few people who don’t know the ending. They have not only been over made but they are occasionally remade as well, see 10 Things I Hate About You as a remake of Taming the Shrew and West Side Story based on Romeo and Juliet.
When I heard of Juliet and Her Romeo, at the Old Vic in Bristol, as a remake set in a nursing home I thought it was a brilliant idea. The power dynamics made sense as the more vulnerable older couple could be subject to the whims of their children. The title taken from the last line of the play felt like a sweet touch (the ending as the beginning) and I wanted to see how Tom Morris would pull it off.
The start was quite promising with a garrulous Dudley Sutton, as the older Mercutio, in a brightly coloured track suit, having a go at Tybald by biting his thumb at him. The familiar lines rolled in and Sampson’s original ‘No sir, I do not bite my thumb at you, sir but I do bite my thumb’ was as familiar as being back in English class. The play unfortunately was not translated but just transposed into a different environment.
While the play is indeed familiar the interpretation of the Shakespearean prose still requires moments of translation. I found it hard to just go with the flow as the minimal stage didn’t allow for the scene to be easily set.
The pressure on Juliet to marry Paris is imposed by her daughter who reminds her that with the marriage they would no longer need to pay the nursing home fees. The pressure on parents to see their children married well becomes an unpleasant burden that needs to be gotten rid of in this case. It becomes quite clear that the daughter’s encouragement to make the right choice is as selfish as it is compelling. Ultimately there is no choice and when the Doctor takes on the role of the father to bully her into marriage it all becomes a very familiar insidious scene which is really quite chilling.
Golda Rosheuvel, as the nurse, provides the hammiest acting I have seen in a while with an overwhelming ebullience that seems as out of place as the fire alarm that went off fourteen minutes into the production. The lights flash and we are asked to vacate the theater and congregate on the other side of the street to the Old Vic.
When we go back inside the actors pick up where they left off and the crowd seem a little more awake. When the friar, Tristan Sturrock, adds in a comment about something being as unexpected as a ‘fire alarm’ it takes us a minute to get it but the laughter slowly makes its way across the audience. It was beautifully done. The friar is energetic and youthful and has a vibrancy which is in strong contrast to the older cast. While Sian Phillips, plays Juliet with a gentle elegance, Michael Byrne as Romeo mumbles and recites lines as if he’s racing to get to the end. Even with my prior knowledge of the play I found it hard to understand what he was saying.
Mercutio stands out in the older cast and the only upsetting thing in his performance is the knowledge that his role will end halfway through. His speech is clear, his actions buoyant, his dreaminess believable and his moxy just the right side of aggressive.
The beauty of Shakespeare comes through clearly in its failure to convince. The passionate scenes between Juliet and Romeo are missing a vivacity and glow that wouldn’t be far from a scene enacted by teenagers (the hormones were lacking on stage). It doesn’t help when Romeo forgets his lines.
The stage directions work beautifully and the scene changes flow as easily as choreographed dances. The slight musical element to the play was confusing at times and I couldn’t quite work out whether it was meant to be a tragedy, a comedy, a musical or a miscellaneous mis-mash of whatever they could think of. Why did the friar start singing exactly? I really don’t know.
What I do know is that if you’re going to remake one of the most well known plays you need to make it either amazing or slightly different enough to warrant a fresh glance. This production was intended to be different but it failed to deliver in a manner quite tedious. If ‘amazing’ doesn’t happen and ‘different’ doesn’t deliver then the rest is sure to fail. After all, we know how it ends so what exactly would make us stick around?
Juliet and Her Romeo is playing at the Old Vic until 24 April 2010.
Bristol Old Vic, King Street, Bristol, BS1 4ED. 0117 987 7877. http://www.bristololdvic.org.uk/