Directed by Ragna Weisteen for Sommarteater på Krapperup in Höganäs, Sweden, 25 July, 2014.
Reviewed by Kiki Lindell
I saw this production with a group of my students who recently studied and played Romeo and Juliet themselves (in English, at Lund University). Beforehand, they laughingly acknowledged that they fully intended to remain unimpressed, and prefer our own version to this one – but they capitulated, and loved it. Their knowledge about and ownership of the play made my teacher’s heart soar with joy in the subsequent discussions – and certainly, something about this Romeo and Juliet did prove truly captivating, above and beyond many other memorable productions: the mood, the heightened reality of it, the chilling certainty (specific, not generic) that this could be happening here and now and not be a play at all.
This promenade performance moves between quiet streets with suburban semis and a brutalist-architecture council estate on the outskirts of Höganäs, a pretty little seaside town in southern Sweden. With its disproportionately wide, empty streets and mainly one- or two-storey buildings, basking in the sweet summer sunset and warm afterglow, it has the deceptively idyllic look of a small town in a David Lynch film; but battered old Volvos and Saabs, spray-painted with M for Montague and C for Capulet, are cruising the neighbourhood like sharks, and inside them, young men with tattooed, muscular arms wielding iron-bars are ready to explode in aggression at any moment; they augur something altogether more sinister and creepy and Scandinavian noir.
Through this uneasy idyll, the audience is taken on a back-street safari. Behind the hedges, we hear the muffled sounds of barbecues and garden parties. Children peep out at us as we slowly stroll past, as curious about us as we are about the story that we are following – who is the actor and who is the spectator here really? Locals have, with extraordinary generosity, allowed the actors into their homes and onto their balconies to play to us below in the street – even allowing some bright (and rather beautiful) graffiti paintings on their garages (paint courtesy of the local paint-shop, the printed programme said).
Walking along the dusty pavement, there is an unexpected sense of magic in the mundane; everything is so ordinary and commonplace that as a consequence, everything seems exotic, elevated, even enchanted. The environment is an unpredictable actor in itself: as a spectator, you never know if the merry bicycle bell behind you will herald the Nurse, or some innocuous bather returning home from the beach; if the drunken man we meet is part of the action or just a Friday-night reveller (as it happens, we met with both categories on our promenade). Everything could be part of the story, and therefore everything seems part of the magic. This is not just a promenade performance, with scenes getting into motion as the audience passes along, but something which gives us a true sense that the drama is happening all around us, and will – inexorably – go on happening, whether or not we are perceptive enough to notice it. It is like Auden’s words on how suffering, births and great events take place ‘[w]hile someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along’.
The text used is a fairly faithful blank-verse translation, but with words and lines occasionally changed to fit the surroundings, and with some modern interpolations, serving as comments on the dual theme of love and hatred: En route, actors are walking with us or sitting on top of garages, reading real love-letters, recounting or re-enacting their own true love-stories – whether struggling or successful, damaged or innocent, old or young. Gradually, darker elements creep in. A defenceless drunkard is beaten up by a group of young men with shaved heads and crowbars. Children on swings in a playground turn out to be the younger scions of the warring households; they suddenly gang up on each other, screaming abuse that clearly derives from their parents, and come to blows, until one pathetic little figure lies motionless and dusty under a still-moving swing – another sinister augury of what is to come.
The characters are absolutely believable in the context of the staging. Juliet is seventeen, going on eighteen, rather than the nearly-fourteen of the original; a porcupine-haired, panda-eyed emo kid who has nothing in common with Paris. He is a go-getting hunk in preppy-casual Ralph Lauren, ‘recently returned from two months with the Red Cross in the Ukraine’, we are informed by a clearly impressed Capulet, while Paris himself smirks and looks down with false modesty. A character less translatable to the present time, Peter, has his very artificiality foregrounded to advantage: an ‘actor’ is resolutely shanghaied from amongst the audience, and roundly abused by the Nurse for being too slow with the fan and the aqua vitae (‘It’s simply impossible to get good staff these days’). The Nurse herself is played by a male actor, who doubles as Friar Laurence (an Alice-band for the Nurse becomes a dog-collar for the Friar) – a very successful doubling of the young lovers’ confidant(e)s and helpers, I thought, though demanding some nimble voice- and foot-work, especially in III.3. Apart from this, there is very little doubling; there are in fact so many actors and walk-ons that you almost start thinking that it is a conspiracy, a Fowlesian godgame where everyone is an actor except you (I counted roughly thirty people on stage, about half-a-dozen of whom were professional actors).
As darkness falls and the play veers into tragedy, we are led towards a suburban wilderness, an unsightly no-man’s-land with dry grass in untidy tussocks, building-rubble, broken blocks of concrete, containers and car carcases. The containers become instruments of war as wild, stirring rhythms are beaten out on them with iron-bars by the gangs as they approach, bearing torches and weapons. An ancient Volvo Amazon is torched by Benvolio. Old Capulet wields a chainsaw. In this Romeo and Juliet, there is no doubt that things will end badly; there is nothing casual or accidental about the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt. They have been kept apart with great effort up to this point in the play; now, they have finally found a place God-forsaken enough to fight out their final combat without intervention, with the death of one as the inevitable end. This town ain’t big enough for both of them, simply.
After Juliet’s ‘death’, the audience becomes part of the funeral procession, walking in subdued silence among the mourners behind Juliet’s white coffin, carried by actors in black. The rest of the actors walk with us, softly singing John Dowland’s ‘Flow My Tears’ in harmony. It becomes very real; there is a lump in my throat.
The end is profoundly unsettling. As Montague and Capulet, broken and crying, make peace over their children’s bodies, the monument behind them is noiselessly invaded by groups of the skinhead gangs and playground children we saw earlier. The leaders of the two households might be softening, but the younger generations have no intention of giving up the family feud. The groups climb towards each other, then suddenly raise their arms and weapons – and as the light abruptly goes out, leaving us in complete darkness, that is the image left on our retinas: the fighting goes on in fair Verona, and elsewhere.