Drugged by violent desire

3rd October 1997 at 01:00
Heather Neill talks to Michael Attenborough about the emotional hot-house of Romeo and Juliet

Passion. Michael Attenborough is fascinated by it - professionally speaking, that is. Having already directed two passionate plays for the Royal Shakespeare Company, The Herbal Bed and After Easter, he is now embarking on Shakespeare's most famous love story.

Chatting during a break in rehearsals at a gothic former gymnasium in King's Cross, he sums up his approach to Romeo and Juliet. For him it is not primarily about the lack of responsibility shown by an older generation to the young, nor even about the corrosive effect of the pursuit of money and ambition, it is about the nature of desire.

And that includes violence. "The most frightening thing is that people need the feud between the Montagues and Capulets, they love doing it, it's like a kind of drug. And they talk of love and desire in the same terms as violence. " He cites Romeo's words to Benvolio in Act I, Scene 1: "Here's much to do with hate, but more with love.

Why then, O brawling love, O loving hate"

"But the language of death and violence is entwined with sexuality throughout, even in the Prologue." Attenborough describes the street fights between the rival gangs as "like being confronted by half a dozen football hooligans. It's sometimes played as if these are boys being cool, but it's not a hobby. They are serious; it's addictive because it's frightening."

Romeo is himself capable of passionate extremes: "The great lover, full of sexual ardour, is overwhelmed by revenge and violence to kill Tybalt". For this director, Romeo and Mercutio express what he calls "the unity of opposites: the ardent romantic and the arch-cynic; scratch one and you find the other. " Mercutio is attractive: "If he is played as quirky and strange, it's no wonder that he's cynical". It is more complicated than that. "In the Queen Mab scene it is clear that he has suffered in love. He's been there and matured too quickly."

The production is due to tour extensively, but no venue (in England, at least) will be bigger than the Pit in the Barbican, which seats 450. This Attenborough sees as an advantage: "It provides a context to investigate dramatically the effect of passion and desire in a claustrophobic, infectious atmosphere. " This will be helped by setting the action in a small town peasant community in Italian heat at about 1910. "There's a whiff of now - frankly the women's costumes of the period are not very sexy." A few liberties have been taken to make the text fit - servants have virtually disappeared, for instance. Capulet's household consists entirely of family members. Juliet's father, who is often played as cruel and ambitious in wanting to marry her off to the well-connected Paris, is, believes Attenborough, confronted with "a very identifiable dilemma. He is so protective that it's obsessive, but he believes he has made the right choice for her. And it is a very patriarchal society. Paris is a notable catch. He's often played as a rich man's wimp, but he is very eligible and he has real feeling for Juliet".

Although Attenborough thinks it unlikely that this production will be contained within the "two-hours' traffic of our stage" mentioned in the Prologue, it will be speedy, and judicious cuts have been made to ensure this: the Apothecary scene and much of the mourning for the supposedly dead but only drugged Juliet have gone, as well as other odd lines.

"It is important", he says "that events happen at such speed, especially in the second half, that the illogicalities of the plot are not noticeable. " People act in haste - and in this lies some excuse for the Nurse and Friar Lawrence ("he acts on impulse, does things unthinkingly - which is not very Friar Lawrence"). "Pace is important to the dramatic shape of the play - although pace isn't speed, but energy and variety."

Romeo is played by Ray Fearon, a young, black actor who has played lesser parts at the RSC already. Race is not an issue in the play. The factions have no idea how the age-old dispute between them began. Fearon was chosen because Attenborough simply believes he is the right person for the part at this time.

"We are told by the Prologue that they are going to die, but, having that knowledge, the audience must be seduced into thinking it inconceivable that these vibrant creatures will perish. If Romeo and Juliet are cast too young, you are in danger of ending up with victims, self-pitying and weak. I wanted them to have vigour, sensuality, humour, determination, passion, will power and a survival instinct. Ray is handsome, strong, an experienced actor who is wonderful with the language."

Some of Romeo's desperate speech to Friar Lawrence, when he does seem self-pitying, has been "filleted" to ensure that he doesn't become "hard to care about." Zo Waites, who plays Juliet, is required to draw on her humour, determination, wit and directness. As Attenborough points out, Juliet has spent years with the Nurse and he imagines she will have acquired "all her strength and spunkiness".

Attenborough is coming back to Shakespeare after a gap of 18 years. He is approaching it with a mixture of respect and inventiveness, finding ways to help young actors with the verse in true RSC fashion and never losing sight of the passion in the language and characters.

Romeo and Juliet opens at the Barbican (0171 638 8891) on October 29, then Stratford on November 15 before touring in the UK and abroad. Details: Jane Ellis 01789 926655

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