When John Peel died in 2004, the Undertone’s Teenage Kicks found itself repeatedly played on the radio in tribute to the broadcaster. As Peel suggested, there is perhaps no better song to encapsulate the anarchic teenage spirit (save for Nirvana’s Smells like Teen Spirit), yet the idea of this being an adult’s ‘favourite’ song always troubled me (even when I, in 2004, was actually only 16 years old myself). The idea of the adult who sees their teenage days – and here I am not talking about Peel, but people more generally – as the best days of their life seems to be getting it wrong on two accounts. First, having your life’s peek at between 13 – 19 years of age is a depressing thought, placing a narrative of decline on a human’s next 70ish years on earth. Secondly, quite frankly who would want to return to their teenage days? ‘Raw’ and ‘anarchic’ might seem like attractive qualities for a piece of music, especially when listened to underneath the duvet of hindsight and nostalgia, but no one who actually felt their insides made ‘raw’ and their thoughts ‘anarchic’ would want to return to those days or even invest time in dwelling on them.
But scrap thinking about your own sad experiences behind the bike sheds because Peel did get it right on one account in that the teenage experience has, at least, provided us with some great works of art (which is the least it could do in compensation). And one of these works – despite it not always being staged as such – is Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. As with the Undertones’ song which works only because it is about teenage kicks and therefore speaks of a very specific type of lust, newness and obsession, Romeo and Juliet only ever really works when understood as the story of two young people. Arguing that historical fluctuations in the age of marriage mean that we can upgrade Juliet to whatever age we now think suitable for vows to take place at misses the point. The actual passion between them, the mad obsession that makes two people end up killing themselves over one another when, to be un-romantic, they are basically strangers, can only be understood when you remember the utter agony that even one glance, one brush of a hand against another in school, could bring about at age 13.
The decision to fully embrace and perform Romeo and Juliet as a teenager’s play is at the heart of why Shakespeare and the Tobacco Factory’s latest performance is so majestically good. The scenario and characters make you feel uncomfortable, and a little bit sick, in their insistence that this – what we, adults, call the ‘Greatest Love Story of them All’ – is actually about teenagers and, therefore, demands answers to what this says about us and how we think of romance, tragedy and love. The casting across the production is excellent, but particularly in its choice of Daisy Whalley as Juliet. Although the actress herself must be older than the 14 year old she plays, when she arrives on stage in a Beatnik belly top and high-waist jeans she possess the disconcerting, imp-like look that many fashion models have when their clothes say ‘sexy’ but their face says ‘child’. (See Selena Gomez on the cover of V magazine for a recent example). The logical extreme of this came during the sex scene with the canny choice of Juliet’s white and slightly dowdy underwear – briefs that were not brief, the kind mother or the nurse bought you.
In most productions there are one, maybe two, outstanding actors and characters. In Romeo and Juliet there were at least five (and even writing that sounds like I am doing a disservice to the rest of the cast). These five (since I have now decided to select them) were Paapa Essiedu as Romeo, Oliver Hoare as Mercutio, Sally Oliver as nurse and Paul Currier as Friar Laurence. All of whom simultaneously appeared perfectly suited to the roles according to age and appearance yet also acted them in a manner that felt entirely new and transformative. The sharp delivery of Romeo’s lines proved that Shakespeare can effectively be rendered via intonation and emphasis into something approaching ‘normal’ or ‘modern’ speech, something that many productions – including the famous Baz Luhrman film – attempt, but many fail at. Casting choices for a character whose first name has transformed itself into a general noun for lover often also fall short (it must be a tough decision to find an unfailingly attractive man), but Paapa Essiedu is both suitably physically attractive to make him a teenage heart-throb and, moreover, witty, poetic and funny with his words.
Oliver Hoare as Mercutio, meanwhile, is the class clown grown up (slightly), the Gap Year kid who never wears a shirt, plays an acoustic guitar and likes body paint. He’s a wonderfully convincing drunk (pet hate: people acting ‘drunk’ badly) and his performance makes Shakespeare’s character make sense in the same way that seeing Juliet as pubescent also does. Additionally, Sally Oliver takes up the role of the nurse and not only changes it from being the preserve of a dumpy old maid, but also shows the error of, in many productions, making this a minor role – a comment that could also be made of Paul Currier whose Friar Laurence speaks with tones as calming and cooling as the air inside a mausoleum.
Aside from explaining the relationship between Romeo and Juliet, placing the play within the context of teenagerdom also serves to let us understand the character of Juliet herself much better. For as she sits on her iron bed with her tyrannical father shouting down on her, threatening to throw her out on the streets if she does not acquiesce to marry Paris, she strikes me as a very lonely figure. Unlike Romeo who is so surrounded by his male friends that he takes to spending time apart from them so as to moon about more thoroughly, Juliet has no one. Her inscrutable mother is but the mouthpiece of her father’s orders and her nurse, who fills the maternal role, ultimately distanced from her by social class and age. She is only allowed to leave the house to attend church and it seems like the ball may have been her first opportunity to potentially make her own romantic matches. Where, I wonder, are all her female friends flocking to advise her to take things slow or nursey to provide her with condoms and wisdom? Juliet is another solitary Lady of Shalott figure, a young woman who must ultimately end up ‘dead’ – either literally or metaphorically – if she is to violate and escape her repressive home life. There is much to suggest that Juliet is always doomed to be a suicide and that, perhaps, Romeo is simply the catalyst for an inevitable fate. Understanding her to be a teenager is a part of this as young women are often uniquely powerless – simultaneously controlled and ignored by everyone around them.