Romeo and Juliet @ Shakespeare Theater Diever, The Netherlands, 2015Tragedy

  • Paul Franssen

Romeo and Juliet, translated and directed by Jack Nieborg, Shakespeare Theater Diever, The Netherlands, 22 September 2015.

Reviewed by Paul Franssen, Utrecht University


Photograph by Koen Timmerman. The Grand Finale, with the dead gathering below, while Capulet and Montague are making peace above.

The Diever open-air theatre has undergone a transformation over the last two years. Rather than a proscenium arch or thrust stage, last year a catwalk model was introduced, with a narrow heightened stage, and the audience sitting on two sides. On each side, a walkway allows the actors to enter from amongst the audience. Such a set-up requires amplification of the actors’ voices, because they can never face all of the audience at once; much of the acting is one-dimensional, seen only from the side. This year a dimension was added by superimposing a gallery on top of the catwalk, running the same length and breadth. The construction consisted of black metal tubes, looking like the scaffolding of a nineteenth-century factory, with rounded arches and ornaments. Gigantic cogwheels suggested the inevitability of Fate, once set in motion. The set’s industrial look matched the “steampunk” costume design, with the male Capulets wearing top hats, the Montagues leather pilots’ caps, complete with goggles. Instead of swords, they carried hammers for weapons,

The set design with its split levels was crucial to this production. The play’s many confrontations, between groups or individuals, worked very well on this two-dimensional stage. In the opening scene, the servants’ fight downstairs was mirrored in a confrontation between their betters, Capulet and Montague, on the upper level. For the lovers’ first meeting, in the midst of a wild party with modern dance music, they suddenly appeared centre stage. The other party-goers sat down on the floor facing away from the lovers, while they embraced for a long kiss, with romantic music playing just for them. The balcony scene began with Romeo standing below, spying Juliet, lit with warm light as if she caught the sun’s last rays. But while Romeo climbed up the scaffolding on one side to join her, Juliet climbed down on the other: everything in this play went awry, in spite of good intentions.

The prologue had been omitted, or rather, postponed till after the break. Instead, the action was preceded by a dance. While the audience was entering the auditorium, eight girls dressed in corselets repeated their dance routine, silently, without any accompaniment, always ending with four dancers lying down as if dead. With their black lipstick and the absence of music, this dance macabre was an ominous foreshadowing of the tragic action.

In spite of their costuming, Romeo and Juliet were played as modern adolescents. Romeo was naïve and somewhat listless, Juliet was pert and threw tantrums: when summoned to appear before her mother, she yelled at the Nurse, “I am coming!!” Her reason for wanting to retain her virginity, as she innocently revealed, was to avoid looking too easy; but if Romeo insisted and did not mind, she would have been only too willing. Julia’s mother seemed far younger than her father. She was heartlessly concerned with status and cold towards Juliet. Capulet looked like a boisterous successful businessman, a devoted father intent on spoiling his little darling, but when she set her will against him, he quickly lost his patience and turned into a tyrant. Juliet’s last refuge was the nurse, who seemed kind enough, yet betrayed her charge after Tybalt’s death, evidently much against her instinct—her reluctance to support the match with Paris was palpable. Juliet was revenged on her by rudely dismissing her from her bedroom at the opening of 4.3, quite explicitly naming the sin of bigamy which the nurse was complicit in as her reason for wanting to be alone.

Romeo seemed a milksop, especially in his confrontation with a far older Tybalt, who was Juliet’s uncle rather than her nephew. As Romeo was no match for Tybalt, Romeo needed help to kill him: while Tybalt confronted Romeo alone, suddenly two Montagues appeared from behind and held him for Romeo to finish him off. After the break, the killing of Tybalt was repeated twice in a dumb show—perhaps suggesting a repeat of events in Romeo’s dreams.

Friar Laurence was one of the production’s most forceful characters. Mature and self-possessed, he seemed to lack all hesitation. All the greater was the shock when, in the grave scene, he lost his nerve, and left Juliet alone with the corpses of Romeo and Paris.

If the earlier, comic half of the play was full of bawdy jokes and invented stage business, the second part engaged our emotions. Paris on his wedding day brought a small jazz orchestra, who were heard approaching from a distance, while Juliet’s apparently lifeless body was discovered on stage. The happy music off-stage, ever increasing in volume, wonderfully contrasted with the growing confusion and dismay on-stage. The finale was particularly impressive. Here the stage design helped to set the tragic mood, while also suggesting the limitations of human vision. The lower level represented Juliet’s tomb, with the industrial arches now evoking its vaults, while the upper gallery was at street level. As in a split-screen film, the audience could see both levels at once, whereas the characters’ view was limited to only one. With effective lighting and candles, a strong chiaroscuro effect was created, while a dripping sound and fog rising up from the ground completed the atmospheric picture. Paris, and after him Romeo, descended into the dismal vault, while Balthasar waited upstairs. After the discovery of the corpses, the living all returned to the upper level; downstairs, Romeo and Juliet, then Paris, slowly arose, to be joined by Mercutio, Tybalt, and Lady Montagu, the other victims of the quarrel. While Montague and Capulet were concluding peace far above their heads, the dead were joined by the eight macabre dancers from the beginning, as if they were a kind of norns. Together, they created a strong tableau, visualising tragic futility.

Paul Franssen

Author: Paul Franssen

Paul Franssen (1955) teaches at the English Department of Utrecht University. His main research and teaching interests are Shakespeare and the early modern period, South African Literature, Jane Austen, and Oscar Wilde. He has co-edited a few books on Shakespearean matters, and is the author of Shakespeare’s Literary Lives: The Author as Character in Fiction and Film (Cambridge University Press, 2016).