Infamous feud

12th March 2004 at 00:00
Romeo and Juliet

Royal Shakespeare Company

Peter Gill, directing Stratford's Romeo and Juliet, quotes a fellow director strong on Greek drama as saying the Aristotelian view of tragedy "won't hold water". Instead, Gill refers to medieval English Mystery plays, particularly citing from these popular biblical dramas the York Crucifixion play as something Shakespeare might have found sympathetic.

It's the practical, everyday detail of "how you carry out a crucifixion" which he relates to Shakespeare the observer. Despite its Verona setting, Romeo and Juliet gives a clear picture of upper-middle-class English domestic life: social events, wedding and burial procedures, even the ingredients in dishes for such occasions. It's typical of Shakespeare that he gives Juliet's nurse a name, though few playgoers remember she's called Angelica.

This overlays the play's literary Petrarchan romance. Juliet begins talking in literary conceits, moving to Shakespearean metaphor in the party scene, where she learns her new love is forbidden. It's here the dutiful Juliet starts lying, initially to her nurse. She's "totally the product of a rich, aspirational upper-class, a non-neurotic Diana Spencer, gorgeous and uncluttered," says Gill.

The play has had a hold on many artists' imaginations "maybe because it's the first (Renaissance) tragedy not to deal with remote or mythical figures. The first part is more like a comedy" except the Chorus has warned there's worse to come. And the feud is more powerful for remaining unexplained; were it not there, Gill believes that loving Capulet would have allowed his idealised daughter to marry Romeo.

If Juliet is seen within the family, Romeo is placed among his friends, experiencing male peer pressure; Gill sees him as an incipient Hamlet, projecting his melancholy onto Rosaline, the first object of his affections.

The Capulet father-daughter relationship is "done brilliantly", Gill believes, as is that of Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio.

Gill sees a parallel between Capulet's anger at Juliet's resistance and Lear's fury at his erstwhile much-loved daughter Cordelia: "Boys don't like losing a friend to a girl. Romeo is the first of them to have a serious girlfriend, and the others are trying to get him back."

Mercutio tricks him back into their old, witty manner, so different from Tybalt's. Though, without the feud, Gill supposes the friends could have accommodated him .

But there is a feud, and it reshapes Romeo's life. Gill picks on the small scene with the apothecary in Mantua, where Romeo gives consideration to a man he might never otherwise have bothered with: the upper-class youth "almost becomes politicised".

Royal Shakespeare Theatre in rep March 25-October 1 Tel: 0870 609 1110 Hornchurch Queen's Theatre March 12-April 3Tel: 01708 443333 Shifting Sands Theatre Company tour a three-person clown version to April 22, and The Splinter Group Theatre Company's radical adaptation tours to April 3. Details in Going Places in The TES, February 13www.tes.co.uk

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