Tuesday 16 March 2010, Bristol Old Vic
Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, but set in a care home, where Romeo and Juliet are amongst the elderly residents. The conceit is that Juliet's daughter wants to marry her mother off to rich ole Paris so that she doesn't have to cover the spiralling costs of residential care. It's a compelling spin for a 2010 retelling.
But there's not a lot of other mucking about with it. There's some folding in together of characters, but only cursory changes to the original text and a real faithfulness to the structure of Shakespeare's story. Which is perhaps where - for me - its principal flaws spring from... but let's not start there.
It is always good to see an intergenerational cast - perhaps in part because it's surprisingly rare to see one, but more because it extends the world in which the show exists. And it's wonderful to see the focus on a core group of elderly performers. It's not a new device per se (then, who really cares about new?), but what is unusual is that the state of being elderly is the context in which the story is set. It's not a reflection on 'old-ness' in the way that say, King Lear is; or in the way the fact of age is present and acknowledged in more experimental, non-narrative work such as Ursula Martinez' OAP or Tom Marshman's The Invitation .
The problem for the show though, is that being old is different to being fourteen. And aside from a few moments where the age displacement creates some wry ironies in the text (Benvolio: "I pray thee, good Mercutio, let's retire", Juliet: "I have forgot why I did call thee back"), the production's reverence to the text prevents it making a convincing case for these characters as old star cross'd lovers. It's not that they wouldn't fall in love so deeply and so immediately, but their fluster at the situation and their haste to take action seems viable only with the wide-eyed naivety of youth. And when it comes to considering death... it's not that older people are less afraid of death (quite the opposite in many cases) but again it doesn't ring true that these elderly people would talk as if death was so alien to their thoughts.
It's this lack of investment in the contextual world of this version of the story that most undermines the production. It's as if the director felt that 'the big reversal' was done in the casting, and the rest would... just... follow. But of course it doesn't. The lack of rigour in maintaining the conceit to any depth, made the whole work feel insubstantial, and ultimately a bit gimmicky. This is despite compelling performances by the older cast, particularly (IMO) Sian Phillips and Tim Barlow*. After the first act, the care home exists merely as a set. There's no sense of these people living their lives within any kind of institutionalised system.
The most fundamental problem for me was that Juliet's daughter never convinced as someone with the capacity to act tyrant over her mother. Surely one of the scariest prospects of old age in modern times is the loss of independence. An arranged marriage is frightening enough at any age, but after a full life, where you have proven your ability to live by your own wit and intelligence, to have your child turn round and try coercing you into a marriage against your will must be the ultimate betrayal. But it doesn't play like that here... in part, I imagine, because there's nothing in the original text that allows for Juliet being old, but also because Abigail Thaw's heavy acting has no sense of authority next to Sian Phillips' more assured performance. It's inconceivable that this prissy daughter could get her clearly more confident mother to do anything she didn't want to do. Surely we need to believe that Juliet really will be condemned to a life with Paris, and a life without Romeo, in order to buy into the drama? Unfortunately that never rang true to me as a possibility (never mind as a threat) so everything that followed all seemed a bit melodramatic. I kept forgetting that the marriage deal with Paris was even on. In my head, the furrowed brows were entirely about the Montague/Capulet enmity, which has always seemed a bit suss to me in the way it's never explained... I mean you know, even Doctor Who would offer at least a token bone to the audience on that, if only to say, "no-one can even remember how it started" (yeah, you Sontarans and Rutans, I'm talking about you).
Having said all that, I did find the decision to emasculate Paris a poignant one; to have him reduced to waiting, wandering, seemingly kept in the dark as his would-be bride is being bullied into marrying him. There was a darkness in the exploitation of this man that was left subtle, in a production with very little darkness or subtlety.
On basic points:
The set design worked well and beautifully made use of the depth of the Theatre Royal stage. As an aside, I'm always amazed how rarely the depth of that stage is used... I'd kill for that kind of depth to work with. But where the set pointed into the deep, the action happened almost exclusively on the thrust... I know it might be hard to hear dialogue from the back of that space, but there must have been a million opportunities to extend the staging of action through the full depth of the space. If only to have had people moving in the background, the actions and routines of the institution reminding us that this was not Juliet's big house, but a station for many, towards the end of many individual lives, still living lives. It would have bolstered the veracity of the contextual world AND looked good!
The sound design was very rough - but then, I've come to expect that from most theatre shows. It's a pet hate of mine, that sound always seems to be the last thing considered in constructing a theatre show. You'd never get away with that in a film.
Where the older actors were captivating, the younger actors were almost all outrageously unconvincing - like they were acting at doing Shakespeare: all huffing and puffing, shrugging shoulders and pronouncing with their arms. I'll give a little shrift to Golda Rosheuvel, playing the nurse, who definitely had some sort ownership of the role, even if it was an unnecessarily broad characterisation. At least she wasn't Tristan Sturrock, who basically seemed to play the Friar role as if everything was a big game... WAY to undermine the drama, dude. And I hate to say it, but I sometimes had to actually turn away when Pal Aron as the Doctor came on stage. To be fair, I think the Doctor had an unclear role and his relationship to the characters, his agenda, were all so vague that the fact that he mainly seemed to be shouting into the void can't entirely be his own fault.
It's a solid production, with a couple of lovely moments - the balcony scene was beautifully and simply played, and the fracas which leads to Mercutio and Tybalt's deaths had genuine tragedy about it. But the main disappointment for me was that I was expecting something bolder. The company seemed to be happy with the high concept twist, but then failed to shape a production which would make the implications of that twist resonate. I was hoping to find something unexpected, even moving, in this telling of the story; but ultimately it was all quite predictable.
* I'll freely admit I have a soft spot for Tim Barlow because of his part in Hot Fuzz - aka one of the funniest films ever (I know that's controversial, but this is my blog, so I win) and of course by being possibly the best thing about Destiny of the Daleks**.
**Other than the legendary moment where the Doctor 'mis-tells' a couple of Daleks to "Spack Off!" and shoves a primary coloured explosive down Davros's nethers. Of course.
images: Juliet's Death (from Charles & Mary Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare), Sian Phillips as Juliet, Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer in the 1936 film, Tim Barlow as Mr Treacher in Hot Fuzz