Knife crime, gender politics, sexuality, revolution: not necessarily the first things that spring to mind when you think of Romeo and Juliet. But the Royal Shakespeare Company’s latest production highlights just how relevant Shakespeare’s writing still is.
Setting the world’s most famous love story in the present has been done before, but does it work at this exact moment in our history, with changes going on in the way we talk about gender, gender roles and sexuality? RSC Deputy Artistic Director Erica Whyman admits she was shocked by how straightforward it was.
Sadly, it was the topic of violence and particularly knife crime that felt particularly current. ‘In the play they’re talking about swords, but in the place of swords you think knives and it feels like 2018. Knife crime rose 21% in 2017, so this was an important reference point for me.’
In the play they’re talking about swords, but in the place of swords you think knives and it feels like 2018
Another key aspect – and likely the thing people will notice most for obvious reasons – is the casting of women in parts not usually played by women, most visibly Charlotte Josephine as Romeo’s best friend, Mercutio. Having a physically strong woman – Josephine is a serious boxer in her spare time – in the role was part of making the play feel more representative of today’s world in terms of reflecting our society more closely, explains Whyman.
As does subverting stereotypical gender roles, and examining issues of sexuality. ‘I think Shakespeare left clues that Benvolio’s relationship with Romeo is unrequited and in a number of his plays he seems fascinated by how sexuality works,’ says Whyman. ‘If you’re in a macho culture of knives and guns that’s one of the hardest places to be open about sexuality that doesn’t conform to straight and cis gender. So it felt very natural to explore this.’ She adds, ‘One of the things I’ve been thinking about is the role theatre plays in a lot of the issues of equality and diversity and representation; it’s easy to fall into clichés when thinking about casting.
‘In our production there are many different types of men and women. I’ve switched some of the lines around between Lady Montague and Montague, so Montague carries the emotional story. Lady Montague is egging on the continuation of the fight. This subverts the clichéd view of a woman.
‘I’ve also got Beth Cordingly playing Escalus; she comes in to stop a fight, telling the men “why can’t you just stop”, which is something I think many people will identify with.’
Shakespeare’s Juliet is typically played by a stereotypically “beautiful” actor. I wanted to widen the scope of who gets to play Juliet and use a diverse group of performers to take on the role
Lady Capulet is portrayed as someone who has this old fashioned sense of what a woman should be; she’s stuck in a toxic marriage, trying to be the wife she’s expected to be, but under the threat of domestic violence. Whyman is not the only one challenging our stereotypes of Romeo and Juliet, there’s also a new iteration of Redefining Juliet, which is going through a period of research and development with the RSC. Created by actor Storme Toolis in 2016 through the Barbican’s Open Lab programme, it explores who we see in our minds when we think of what Juliet looks and sounds like. Toolis, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, brings together five actors who also would not typically be given the chance to play the role, to explore society’s ideals of beauty.
‘Shakespeare’s Juliet is typically played by a stereotypically “beautiful” actor. I wanted to widen the scope of who gets to play Juliet and use a diverse group of performers to take on the role,’ says Toolis.
She emphasises it is not a ‘disability led’ project but rather about ‘difference and diversity and what that means’. ‘We are not trying to make a disability-focused thing,’ says Toolis. ‘We are trying to make a larger point about femininity and what is beautiful.’ The culmination of the work will be a work-in-progress reading of Redefining Juliet at The Other Place, as part of the RSC’s Mischief Festival (31 May–23 June), plus two November performances in The Pit, as part of the Barbican’s season The Art of Change.
The fact we can explore so many current topics through Romeo and Juliet delighted Whyman, who says ‘Although the play is very famous, it still feels fresh and it still speaks to the concerns of young people today.’ Which is important, because after its run here, this new production will tour the UK. Many young people will see it, which Whyman sees as an opportunity to interest a new audience not only in the play and in Shakespeare’s world, but also in the ideas in the play.
‘There are four young people from different schools every night who take part in the prologue alongside the cast of professional actors, so you get a sense at the start of a generation asking the audience to take them seriously and to recognise that it’s a play about youth.
‘It’s very easy to think of this as a romantic, sweet play about idealised love, but it’s also a play about change and revolution. Right at the start, Shakespeare tells you the only way these guys are going to stop fighting is their children’s deaths.
‘The play is about change and about what happens if you risk everything to create change. You might lose it all, but you made that change happen.’
It’s a message that feels more 2018 than 1597.
Royal Shakespeare Company: Romeo and Juliet takes place 2 Nov–19 Jan in our Theatre.
2 Nov-19 Jan
Storme Toolis’ Redefining Juliet takes place 29–30 Nov in our Theatre.
Part of The Art of Change, our 2018 annual theme which explores how the arts respond to, reflect and potentially effect change in the social and political landscape.