Blog: Charlie

The assistant director of Romeo and Juliet on stripping out obscurities and bringing Shakespeare’s play into a modern realm of understanding

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At the end of two weeks of rehearsals on Romeo and Juliet the overwhelming sensation is of how much we still don’t know. The more you mine this famous text the deeper the layers of meaning, metaphor and imagery become, and it’s easy to get lost amongst the historical artefacts scattered throughout the script. Everyone has their own version of the play. Whether you’ve seen it live on stage as a play or dance, witnessed it on film, read it, heard it, or just absorbed it, the story speaks to each of us in a unique way – two families’ torment, a pair of lovers, violent and cruel twists of circumstance, and the electric rush of forbidden passion. It’s dirty, it’s sexy and it’s explosive.

Although it’s exciting to be working on Romeo and Juliet, it’s intimidating in equal measure. This play is constantly reinvented in remarkable ways all over the world, so how can you possibly hope to do it justice? Well, there lies the secret. What we’re discovering is that as you work on it the play unfolds itself, inviting you to put your own mark on it and find what it means for you as a company. It’s such a universal text that it joys in being given a fresh take, and in meaning something new and exhilarating to every audience.

So although for the most part these layers of wordplay and metaphor are what lend the play its richness and depth, many of the references are so specific to the sixteenth century that it’d be near-impossible for a modern audience to absorb them. The original script is a cluttered mess of historical debris and scholarly interventions. Sometimes the unfamiliarity strikes you in surprising ways. For example, a section of the play focuses on Romeo’s banishment from Verona – in our connected world it’s hard to imagine this being a particularly bad fate. Today such a total removal from your family and the world you know is rare. Even modern prisons seem too well connected to be comparable. But back then, “the man living in exile from his homeland is a dead man”, as Evangelista Salvi declared in 1485. We wondered instead if it might be more like being sent to some remote village on the far side of the world, without the internet, mobile phones or cheap flights.

The director Jonathan Humphreys has cleared out many of the more impenetrable references, and what’s remarkable is the play’s resilience to this tidy-up. The story is actually strengthened by this work, obscurities taken out, so that the play is brought into a modern realm of understanding. Its ability to be cut without loss is another sign of its quality – when have you ever seen a play and thought it was too short?

That said, the play itself feels far from dusty, and there’s much fun to be had – whether staging the ball as an Eastern European-inspired disco, investigating the testosterone-fuelled violence of the fights, or playing with the play’s more bizarre and comedic occurrences. This is also due to just how universal Romeo and Juliet’s themes are – in our search for money, power or sex the only control we have is free will. When you lose that you lose everything.

Ultimately what we’re really discovering is just how much Romeo and Juliet imitates life. At first a comedy before tumbling chaotically into tragedy in the second half, it quivers on the edge of farce. Under this lens, the ancient grudge between Montagues and Capulets becomes faintly ridiculous although serious in its origin – in our world they are transformed into business rivals in the waste management game.

The tension between light and dark in the play is palpable, with the comic and solemn tightly juxtaposed. It makes the story thrilling to realise, and echoes the twisting unpredictability of our own lives. Tragedy can strike at the brightest moment; equally, you never know when you might fall in love. And in the world of Romeo and Juliet, that is the only thing worth living – or dying – for.
Romeo and Juliet is at Sheffield Crucible, 17 Sept-17 Oct. As part of the theatre’s Live for 5 scheme there are 1,000 seats available at just £5 for 16-26 year olds

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