Feuding families;Reviews;Set Plays

17th April 1998 at 01:00
ROMEO AND JULIET. Various theatres

Baz Luhrmann's modern-dress film of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet has made a traditional setting for the play seem "alternative", but it's what many schools and theatres still want, according to Jonathan Church, whose Salisbury Playhouse production is starting the second leg of its national tour.

Church's production has Elizabethan costumes but settings that suggest no specific period. Church feels that, with today's teenagers travelling the world, Romeo's local banishment can often fail to register much significance for young audiences.

In workshops young people tend to side with Juliet against her father, who is insisting that she marry the eligible suitor Paris. Why does Capulet, a moderate voice in the feud, suddenly become so heavy-handed? "It's his pomposity," says Church. "Things are fine for him when they're running his way, but his harshness is just underneath the surface and comes out when his daughter doesn't go along with his wishes."

His wife's a match for him - an embryo Lady Macbeth who can be seen as encouraging the feud. "After Tybalt's death she's ahead of Capulet in calling on the Prince for revenge. And at the end, when the two fathers are reconciled, she's present, but Shakespeare gives her no line to suggest she's joining with them."

We see less of the Montagues. The effect is to see their son Romeo as one of the lads. Or rather, not quite one of them. "He's a man of wit, not of the sword; looking for love, not for a fight. He doesn't join in Mercutio and Benvolio's fighting talk," says Church. As for Mercutio, Church sees in him a forerunner of Jaques in As You Like It. "He is melancholic and dies defending Romeo's honour against Tybalt." To emphasise this, Mercutio's long speech about Queen Mab, the inspirer of dreams, is given a serious tone in this production, with its mention of death taken as an early hint of tragedy in a play that has so far been largely comic in spirit. Even Tybalt is more a hothead than a thug.

Yet it is with Mercutio's death that the comedy starts draining out of the play; things become heavier, partly because there is no real subplot. The effect is to intensify the lovers' increasingly tragic journey. Though they have moments of comedy, Church points out that Shakespeare's tragedies tend to be more insistent on impending fate than the comedies with their two plots that only eventually merge.

If there is any subplot it's provided by Friar Lawrence and Juliet's talkative Nurse. The Friar is both a spiritual Father and a surrogate father to the lovers. He's needed in that role; we see how roughly Capulet treats Juliet, and though we never see Montague talking to his son, "We can presume Romeo doesn't have a good relationship with his family. Montague asks Benvolio to find out what's wrong with Romeo, he doesn't ask his son himself." The Nurse provides Juliet with affection but supports Capulet on the matter of marrying Paris. As for the Friar, Church has kept his long speech near the end intact. "It shows he feels a huge moral responsibility for what's happened."

Touring to Richmond Theatre April 21-25, Croydon Ashcroft April 28-May 2, Nottingham Theatre Royal May 5-9, York Grand Opera House May 12-16, High Wycombe Swan May 19-23, Cheltenham Everyman June 2-6, Bath Theatre Royal June 9-13

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