San Francisco’s 1967 Summer of Love is a snapshot of sixties spirit, with its image of half-clothed hippies dancing with, yes, flowers in their hair speaking of youth, idealism and freedom. Yet Daniel Kramer’s opening production for the Globe’s season of the same name immediately disrupts this carefree cultural memory. With nuclear warheads suspended above the stage as part of Soutra Gilmour’s set design, Kramer’s Romeo and Juliet instead reminds that a little under five years before the Summer of Love came the Cuban Missile Crisis. It is this feeling of impending doom – of death, conflict and feuds – that wafts across a somewhat charred Verona.
Look just behind the layers of red roses, white face paint and clunking Doc Martins, and the artist whose work this production most resembles is Roy Lichtenstein. Elements of comic book fantasy and cartoon anarchy are myriad. Along with B-movie fancy dress for the ball and candy-striped baseball bats swung willy-nilly, each firing of a gun is met with an exclamation of BANG! We’re not meant to believe this stuff is real any more than a viewer of Lichtenstein’s Whaam! It’s deliberately fake and there’s a huge amount of fun being had in its production and presentation, yet as with pop art there’s simultaneously an impossible to ignore undercurrent of sadness, a feeling of dislocation from the horrors of the real world that finds its expression in ever more contrived mannerisms.
So firstly the fun bits. The early parts of Kramer’s production feel like the result of someone shouting: Oh, you wanted lights? You wanted music? Oh, I’ll give you fucking LIGHTS! I’ll give you fucking MUSIC! And so Shakespeare is presented in a disco, a rave, a drunken screechy train-wreck of a party. With its obvious, uncompromising petulance there’s something inherently fitting about it as an approach to Shakespeare’s most teenage of plays.
Particularly with the costumes, this entirely unreserved attitude produces grin-worthy results. Lady Capulet (Martina Laird) rocks up at the party encased in a giant monkey fist. You too could achieve this look with a little skilful repurposing of a black puffer jacket. In turn, Nurse (Blythe Duff) appears as a cross between Blondie and a Louis XVI courtier. Then there’s the dinosaur suits, giant dog costumes and some spectacular funereal feathered fascinators that easily add an extra foot in height to the wearer. Juliet (Kirsty Bushell) is presented with more restraint – a Day of the Dead bride in tiered Edwardiana lace, followed by monochrome slips and fringed shawls straight from PJ Harvey’s 90s wardrobe.
This surface sheen, however, flattens other elements of the play. The introduction of Romeo (Edward Hogg) as a flailing emo kid makes a joke of his initial gloominess and in turn plays down the friendship between Master Montague, Benvolio (Jonathan Livingstone) and Mercutio (Golda Rosheuvel). This, crucially, means that we’re far less invested in Mercutio’s eventual death.
The sadness of the production comes both from contrasting outlandish earlier scenes with quieter later ones, and from heavily hinting that this Fresher’s Week flamboyance is all part of a weak attempt at escapism whilst the threat of mass destruction literally looms over us all. Juliet’s awkwardness at the ball intersects with the unshakeable suspicion that this all feels like the worst of New Year’s Eve parties. Where everyone is trying so crucifyingly hard to Go Wild, but the idea of reflecting on the year past and the one to come is producing nothing but a toxic stink of depression in the room.
Despite the disco balls and the raining streamers, there’s a marked difference between the morose atmosphere of Kramer’s Romeo and Juliet and the uncomplicated joy of Emma Rice’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream that opened last summer’s Wonder season at the Globe. If this play has something to say about the Summer of Love, then it is to remember that the hippy movement was itself a reaction to mass consumerism, war and nuclear technology. Kramer’s production underlines the futility present not just in the deaths of two teenagers, but in the decadence of the families’ lifestyles and the cycles of revenge they are trapped in. Turn on, tune in, drop out.
Romeo and Juliet is on at the Globe until 9th July 2017. Click here for more details.