It can be difficult to feel anything with Shakespeare productions nowadays— particularly if you’re a critic seeing the same plays staged again and again. I can admire them, admire the various contortions and choices an ambitious director might make, but I forget what they’re actually about, on a molecular level. Director Ola Ince, with her new chopped and screwed production of Romeo and Juliet, has spoken about deconstructing and reconstructing the play, about getting down to the root of it. What we get is a version that drills down into the fundamental question: what kind of circumstances would push these two young people into doing what they do?
It’s a production that aims for anarchy but lands a little askance — it is difficult for shows to feel properly risky or riotous at the Globe, a space which so often can feel like watching a museum exhibit over a live piece of work. Ince’s production really clicks into place at certain points — the party scene, where Alfred Enoch’s puppyish Romeo and Rebekah Murrell’s luminous Juliet meet, starts a little staggered, with some gig theatre that doesn’t feel as infectious as it should, but it eventually builds to a point of looseness and disorder that feels genuinely precarious. And there is well-observed bolshiness to the way Romeo, Benvolio, and Mercutio ride bikes across the stage, eating Calippos and heckling the Nurse — that sense of a group of kids bored stiff in the sticky heat and looking for either fun or trouble — whichever they come across first. But at other times, the modernised conceit can feel trite: Mercutio vaping is a little “how do you do, fellow kids.” And these are still fully grown adults playing teenagers — youth is being performed and there’s a slight disconnect because of it, despite good intentions — a sort of top-down feeling, as opposed to something more organic.
The framing device Ince uses throughout emphasises this disjunct quite a bit, making it feel like a show made for teenagers but quite evidently made by adults: on a screen hoisted up at the back of the stage, statistics and statements are projected in blood-red lettering: “Suicide is the main cause of death for people under 25,” “The number of London youth clubs has halved since 2011. Young people have nowhere to go,” “It is not safe for women to go out alone.” By no means is Ince striving for subtlety, but this tactic, whilst striking at first, inevitably leaves very little for the audience to play with and interpret. Actors will come to the front of the stage and speak the statements aloud, often with a portentous edge, before returning to the action of the scene, the themes of which will inevitably mirror said statistics, to diminishing returns.
The production isn’t convinced of Romeo and Juliet as a love story for the ages — rather, Ince is more interested in what external and structural circumstances (“Emotional neglect kills,” reads one of the projections) might take advantage of or exacerbate the headiness of being a teenager, a crucible which turns those heightened feelings and hormones into something violent and uncontrollable. The problem is that it’s tricky to convincingly convert those big ideas into the meat of the relationships between parent and child, between cousins and friends and lovers. It’s hard, I think, for actors to cultivate genuine intimacy on the Globe stage, which so often requires performances to project up and out — to the audience first, and your castmates second. If you’re not balanced exactly right, the distance between the stage and the audience can be enormous.
But again, there are flashes of brilliance: there is something lovely in Ince cutting out the lovers’ first meeting in favour of something more elemental — they spot each other, trip towards each other, drunk on love/lust at first sight, then race off the stage, drowned out by the sound of the party. That idea that the audience aren’t privy to certain aspects of their relationship is an intriguing one — they will always remain a little out of reach, the intensity of their relationship a little incomprehensible to us. And death feels particularly obscene in this production, in a way that it often doesn’t in Shakespeare: Enoch’s Romeo convulses on the floor for an almost unbearable amount of time, vomiting and shaking as he dies, and Murrell’s Juliet is wracked with frightened sobs as she picks up her gun. The tragedy here, Ince suggests, is that they felt so let down, so completely failed by the adults and the environments around them, that they didn’t see any other ending for themselves. There is proper weight to this production — it takes itself and it takes the subject matter seriously, in a way which feels remarkably rare. I do wonder how it would feel, if it would be as heart in the mouth as it gestures towards, if it wasn’t on this stage. Something just keeps getting in its way.
Romeo and Juliet is on at Shakespeare’s Globe until 17th October 2021. More info and tickets here.