Review of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (directed by Rupert Goold for the Royal Shakespeare Company) at the Roundhouse, London, 4 December 2010
Originally published in Shakespeare, 7:2 (2011), 208-21.
By B. J. Sokol, Goldsmiths, University of London.
To throw the biggest bouquet first, Mariah Gale’s performance of Juliet was among the best I have seen. All of Gale’s gestures, interactions (despite sometimes deficient bases for these), verse-speaking, emotional control and range – and even her dancing – gave the impression of an effortless assurance, and yet projected powerful conviction.
Of course producing such effects could not have been really effortless. But rather than any arduous straining, I sensed in Gale’s performance an engagement with and immersion in the role of Juliet that seemed natural, transparent and, at the same time, professionally modest. The demands of the text were foremost; nothing was overstated, and nothing understated. And yet, paradoxically, despite a total lack of ostentation, in every part of every one of her scenes Gale’s stage presence was arresting, and it was often incandescent. It shone out even during the distracting pagan fertility ritual chosen by the director to represent the play’s Renaissance masked ball. (That sub-rite of spring was sorely misjudged, but at least not as phallic as some RSC anthropology; English Renaissance court masques may sometimes have turned rumbustious, but they never featured over-amplified bass beats.)
Thanks to a stage accident during the performance I saw, I witnessed proof positive of Gale’s consummate poise and deep theatrical science. In 4.1, when Gale’s distraught Juliet threatened suicide in Laurence’s cell, her hastily drawn-out knife slipped from her grip and arced into the audience. But Gale then retrieved it without missing a single beat of stage time, or breaking the spell of her character, or losing the momentum of the plot. Her means to that achievement were paradoxical; she remained convincingly in character by – for a short spell – openly departing from it. She faithfully upheld the contract of stage illusion, by indicating that the illusion was simply put on hold, and so stage time stood still. Who in the audience, who among the other parties to the contract, would be so churlish or self-harming as to refuse that?
In the brief extra-temporal interval during which Gale collected the errant dagger her demeanour acknowledged the gaffe with a hint of self-amusement, but without contrition, embarrassment, fluster or contagious dismay. And so we were all spared the loss of our collective immersion in the stage illusion.
That inadvertent episode was paradigmatic, actually, of how Gale managed consistently to portray Shakespeare’s Juliet in an exemplary manner, although she often lacked good support from the overall production. Just as during the dagger incident, so during parts of the play, she continued to maintain her role’s true trajectory despite deficiencies or adversities.
For instance, Gale most adequately presented a young girl’s bitter disappointment, indeed precipitous disillusionment, when the erstwhile ally of her love affair, her childhood Nurse, cheerfully proposed that she become an adulterous bigamist. She produced such reactions despite the fact that the performance of the Nurse by Noma Dumezweni inadequately supported them. For, although Dumezweni did speak the Nurse’s lines indicating her long-standing fondness for Juliet as well as her lack of decorous conventionality, she failed to represent the Nurse’s leading characteristic, a crude incomprehension of erotic attachments based on other than animal procreative urges. Rather, Dumezweni’s Nurse’s persistent talk about sex conveyed only a comic (generalized “Elizabethan” or olden-times) bawdiness indistinguishable from Mercutio’s young-man’s lewd innuendoes (about which I will have more to say later). In the absence of a clear indication of the Nurse’s procreative obsession, her advice that Juliet mate with Paris because “he’s a lovely gentleman! / Romeo’s a dishclout to him” (3.5.218–19) sounded like no more than additional bawdiness. But Gale reacted, nevertheless, as if she did suddenly fathom the Nurse’s crudity – an obtuseness worse than time-serving – by putting anguish into her “Ancient damnation! O most wicked fiend!” (235).
In her last interaction with her mother, Gale’s Juliet demonstrated the mounting desperation and isolation that then forced her to acquire an heroic resolution and courage far beyond her years. Again, this true-to-the-play reaction was not well motivated by the production. Here matters were somewhat more ambiguous than in the case of the Nurse’s perfidy, for Shakespeare’s text does not make it clear just why her mother becomes deaf to Juliet’s desperate wish not to marry Paris. In Goold’s production, however, there was no ambiguity in the tone of the mother’s dismissive: “Talk not to me, for I’ll not speak a word. / Do as thou wilt, for I have done with thee” (3.5.202–3). For by that time Christine Entwisle’s “Lady Capulet” had become a defeated woman, indeed a woman so emotionally abused that she had no effective will of her own. The cause of that was the violent tyranny of Richard Katz’s “Lord Capulet”. The Capulet household was thus presented as a site of domestic abuse easy to recognize in terms of stereotypes. But making it that stripped the play of some of its more interesting possibilities.
In particular, the production followed the indications in its programme’s listing as “Lady Capulet” of the character identified as Capulet’s “Wife” in Q1, Q2 and F. This character was thus first seen being richly dressed and preened by massed maidservants, and even her servants wore rich garments (but all the women were made to show bare legs in the dressing or subsequent dancing scenes). By these means “Lady Capulet” was presented as an aristocrat or a (colonialist?) plutocrat, and was thus stripped of the possibility of being a rich citizen’s wife pursuing, in concert with her husband, social ambitiousness in the form of Juliet’s arranged marriage with “noble County Paris”.
I would not stress that possibility as a certainty, but it is a possibility which this production certainly wrote off. Instead, its Capulet was made to eat messily, to spit out chewed food and to throw drink about, and to leap towards Juliet threatening real violence. The visual equation seemed to be between patriarchs, slobbering aristocrats and virile household tyrants. Witnessing his violence, Capulet’s wife was made to cringe while looking on with hopeless terror; my wife and myself and others in the audience also cringed at the spectacle.
Yet, textually, Capulet’s wife is not at all feeble. That text was not cut out of the production (but other social indicators were, such as the parents offering gold memorial statues of Romeo and Juliet). So she chided her much-older-than-herself husband by proposing that he request a crutch, not a sword, she planned to have Romeo poisoned at Mantua, and she described her frustration about Juliet’s antipathy to marriage by saying “I would the fool were married to her grave” (3.5.140). Moreover, when Capulet first raged against Juliet his wife rebuked him with “Fie, fie, what, are you mad?” (157) and “You are too hot” (175), again implying an attitude more of equality than of deference. Also, when the marriage feast was in preparation, she asserted: “I will watch you from such watching”; 4.4.12), meaning that she will prevent Capulet from being unfaithful.
Such lines were reduced to insignificance in the production, or to mere comic banter, because Entwisle’s Lady Capulet demeanour was finally seen as wholly defeated. That was arguably not in accord with the complexities of the text, but it was consistent with the extreme nastiness portrayed by the production’s interpretation of her not doddering (as the text has it), but rather vigorous, violent and revolting husband.
Shakespeare’s conception of Capulet may support sinister aspects, but it is also clearly of an “olde” man, foolish, vain and self-indulgent. Richard Katz did enact the self-deception in Capulet’s only fleeting sensitivity to the decencies required by Tybalt’s recent death, in his faded belligerence in trying to enter a fray, and in his greed in demanding a great feast. But the implications of these actions were erased when his Capulet became, not a panicked paterfamilias, but a mere brute and (to use the mot juste) a slob. The aim seemed to be to present a one dimensional ancien régime autocrat and bully. So, no scope was allowed for Shakespeare’s subtle and in some ways funny portrayal of a blustering citizen with a much younger somewhat shrewish Wife and a challenged ego.
And yet, despite her placement in a household composed of the cowing, the cowed and the crude, Mariah Gale’s Juliet did deliver Shakespeare’s portrayal of a young girl shocked by a loss of all her childhood’s security and by a sudden total loss of parental care. Gale also brought out with great clarity and skill the image of a child growing with phenomenal speed into a woman whose maturity surpasses that of all around her.
In the service of that metamorphosis Gale initially presented Juliet’s touching childlikeness. For instance, she replied to her mother obediently, but at the same time twirled her lighted toy lariat faster and faster to indicate the child protesting against suggestions that she undertake an arranged marriage. Gale even presented a residual childlikeness at the play’s end, when, in the tomb, her Juliet signalled the first stirrings of recovery from the Friar’s drugs by moving her bare feet almost bonelessly, in a peculiarly childlike-mobile way. In these gestural details the play’s direction was movingly sure-handed, and not in the least unnecessary or ineffective.
On a larger scale, Gale provided everything needed for a dramatic exploration of the vexing question of whether the erotic urges of a barely teenaged girl might provide a sound guide for her own future happiness and that of those around her. It would seem that when Shakespeare made his Juliet several years younger than in his sources he implicitly mooted this very question in the form, as it were, of an extreme test case. Indeed the issue in question, whether personal autonomy in making marriage choices should be allowed or suppressed, was attracting special note in Shakespeare’s time. And it is related, in Shakespeare’s version, to a second question nowadays still at issue, which is to what degree adults should interfere with adolescent sexuality. But so many distractions got in the way of such issues in this production that I sensed they had been buried, perhaps out of fear, perhaps out of neglect.
I should mention that in the performance I saw Peter Peverley substituted for the indisposed Forbes Masson in the role of Friar Laurence. Peverley played the well-intending but meddling friar very well, especially when he expressed his guilt and sorrow while confessing his role in the play’s eventual disaster. In the tone of that confession there was even a shadow, perhaps, of a realization that Laurence’s political appropriation of the lovers’ passions to serve the ends of civic peace-making had been a wrong done to them and their love. Peverley certainly carried off his role with aplomb when he failed to elicit an audience interaction required by a directorial innovation. He simply turned away and continued when an audience member refused to be drawn into some stage business, and so carried off his recovery with fair grace. However, he did not show the great charm and insouciance shown by Gale following her accident. Gale of course both deserved and graciously received the co-operation she needed, and so this comparison might seem unfair. But I would have to say that while Peverley dealt with his mishap in a wholly competent and professional way, Gale dispatched hers with such outstanding elegance as to amount to genius.
Romeo, played by Sam Troughton, was also competent throughout. His directorially required interaction with the unfortunate front row involved taking a digital photo of (presumably) a girl sitting there and then making disparaging comments on her attractions when reviewing her image on the camera’s screen. Troughton of course cannot be blamed for that mode of displaying Romeo’s initial callowness; the business comprised the director’s chosen way to substitute a modern demotic gesture for the impact on an early audience of Shakespeare’s Romeo’s initially feeble love poetry. And Troughton’s Romeo did evoke that callowness and following it his unexpected rise to real passion and torment under the influence of Juliet. So he gave very adequate support to the role of Juliet, which seems to me to be just what the play demands.
However, Romeo learning the doctrine of making love rather than war, evident in the play, was crudely supervened by stage business in one instance. This was, when revenging Mercutio, Troughton’s Romeo was made to butcher Tybalt sadistically, twisting a rope around his neck while stabbing him. That brutal stage business seemed to me to serve no better purpose than sensationalism. Similar comments might be made about all the fight sequences staged in this production. Real fire played a major part in these: lit torches were used to threaten and to set one living adversary alight, while a large propane-fuelled fire hole centre stage frequently belched out flames. After several repetitions, those evidently expensive effects began to seem increasingly risible. They in fact brought to my mind the nineteenth-century circus-poster that was parodied by the Beatles in their Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album: “Mr. HENDERSON will, for the first time in Rochdale, introduce his extraordinary TRAMPOLINE LEAPS AND SOMERSETS! Over Men & Horses, through Hoops, over Garters and lastly through a Hogshead of REAL FIRE! … Mr. H challenges THE WORLD!”
The sad thing is that Romeo and Juliet is quite capable of challenging the world in a number of ways, and mountebanking jackanapes or hogsheads of fire are not needed to increase its value. It contains, for example, a close analysis of pigheaded violence fuelled by ancient rivalries mixed with youthful testosterone, an analysis of multiple mutually exclusive views of human sexuality, world-class lyricism, wrenching misunderstanding and a critique of conventional unfeeling selfishness. These, presented with clarity and understanding, could exceed even Mr. H. in thrilling spectators.
Seeking an image to encapsulate that which goes badly wrong in this production (alongside the considerable competence and some real brilliance seen in it), I am drawn to describe how it staged Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech. That famous speech resembles several other Shakespearian set pieces in which a virile character dismisses poetry and imagination while himself unconsciously using brilliantly poetic language. No doubt as directed or encouraged directorially, Jonjo O’Neill presented Mercutio’s speech while performing an extremely elaborate sequence of bodily contortions. Those athletic gestures, nearly snarling in their oddity and extremity, did in a way mime the meaning and language in the passage, especially its thrusting sarcasms and obscenities. But the extreme miming of the meaning failed to reinforce it, and it in fact so distracted attention from it as to in effect set it aside. It seemed that this was done because the modern audience was not to be trusted with complex poetic language, only with the visually spectacular. Shakespeare’s poetry was thus devalued and given a secondary role, effectively an unnecessary role. The language became so inessential that the episode approached becoming Hamlet’s “nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise”.
And here is a confession. I overheard a group of adolescents talking on their way out of the Roundhouse after the performance, and one of them was exclaiming how much he had enjoyed Mercutio’s wild – I take it John Cleese- or Jerry Lewis-like – gestural treatment of the Queen Mab speech. He even tried to imitate one of O’Neill’s athletic contortions. Perhaps he loved as well that Romeo and Juliet were dressed in jeans and hoodies while the rest of the cast wore a variety of costumes vaguely Renaissance in inspiration. Should such eclecticism or physicality be disparaged if it brings youth into theatres? Hardly. But isn’t it possible that the passion of a Juliet as fine as that of Mariah Gale, supported by the very competent Romeo of Sam Troughton and other cast members, could have engaged a young audience even more than mere spectacles? It might have done that more effectively had it been allowed a theatrical channel less cluttered by overheated attempts to speak to youth or others in what is presumed to be their own language.