Staging sex scenes is hard to do. Lost Dog’s new production, Juliet and Romeo, circumnavigates the dry hump of a problem by staging a fight scene. Or a sex-fight scene. A scene of tumbling bodies, biting mouths, scratching nails, furniture falling. And the result is: erotic. Like, actually erotic. Full of desire, in way that 95% (trust me, I did a poll) of sex scenes on stage are not.
Perhaps this is because Ben Duke and Solène Weinachter know, control and appreciate physicality in a way very few performers do. In a show that cuts back and forth between acting and dance, it’s the periods of movement that invariably say the most. But let’s go back to the beginning, before the door swings shut and the sexfight takes place.
The premise of Juliet and Romeo: A Guide to Long Life and Happy Marriage is the GCSE thought experiment of: what would happen if the star-crossed lovers hadn’t died? Only the Lost Dog response is one no teenager fiddling with the collar of their polo shirt in English class would come up with. It’s a response that could only come from a position of maturity – although, maybe ‘maturity’ is the wrong word, but certainly from a position of age.
Juliet (Weinachter) and Romeo (Duke) are middle-aged, living together in the small Parisian flat they originally fled to, and parents to Sophie. The show they perform in together is part-therapy session and part-reenactment of earlier parts of their relationship. Basically, it’s like a variant of every long-term relationship that has become long-term. The joke here, though, is that repetition for this couple has a meta-theatrical twist to it because the ‘scenes’ they play out again and again really are just that: scenes. The scripted ones, as it happens, penned by Shakespeare – a shady figure who tricked them into sharing their story via bottle of whiskey (we’ve all been there).
For Theatre/English Lit geeks, there are many giggles to be had from the Verona in-jokes, and indeed some good jokes full stop. But whilst both performers – Duke being deadpan; Weinachter sharp and satirical – deliver the comedy with natural flair, the script could do with less aversion to seriousness. The things they get so right are the aches and pains of long-term love.
By a non-coincidence of ticketing (I get a press one, he buys one), I watch Juliet And Romeo from the aisle end of a seating row, whilst my husband sits at the exact opposite end of the same line. As I sit there alone, I can see at least three couples – including one sat directly next to me – who I know are couples because they’re doing all this touchy-feely-arms-round-backs and hands-tickling-knees and whispered-thoughts-in-ears stuff. And these audience PDAs induce a sense of panic as the on-stage couple list all the things they do or don’t do now that they’re no longer in the first stages of love.
I hear them and I wince inwardly constructing a monologue of: “SHIT! Do we… is that… are we…?” Wondering if it’s a Bad Sign that we don’t sit together all cuddly in a theatre – whilst also knowing that if he did try to put his arm around me or whisper stuff in my ear midway through a play I’d be MAD AS HELL BECAUSE I’M TRYING TO WATCH A PLAY AND WHAT IS HE DOING?!
I don’t really think we’re becoming like the Juliet and Romeo (not least because we didn’t meet and fall in love aged 14, which is surely an ill-fated start to any infatuation lasting into your thirties). But it’s probably impossible to watch this show and not feel intermittent piercing shocks of recognition, either with regard to your current relationship or previous ones. Behind the jokes and the almost cutesy façade of the play lies an uncanny pinpointing of human behaviour – a bit like what Shakespeare was good at, really. And maybe that’s why the sex isn’t like other on-stage sex. It’s a fight – and an excellent one, at that.
Juliet and Romeo is on at Battersea Arts Centre until 24 February, and then at The Place until 3 March 2018. Click here for more details.