The drizzle, it seemed, was determined to droppeth as the rain from heaven for some time, but heaven’s mercy prevailed to allow for a mainly dry performance of Romeo and Juliet by a wandering troupe from the Globe Theatre in Calderstones Park.
Still, nothing – least of all a bit of rain – comes in the way of Britons determined to enjoy a bit of Shakespeare. People were togged up in hooded anoraks, waterproof rugs and warming flasks of something or other as the travelling players wandered around, joking with the audience before the performance started with a song and dance – just as it would in Shakespeare’s time.
And just as in Shakespeare’s day, the Globe had brought their own stripped-down wooden stage with two levels – an upper stage gallery with its promise of that famous scene between the ‘star-cross’d lovers’ and a main stage, the two connected by ladders and various footholds. The whole assembly rough and unfinished, apart from a quick coat of red paint on the main beams.
The entire cast of eight struck up a jaunty Balkan-style overture, a joyous mishmash of big bass drum, clarinet and smashed cymbal on a stick, and everyone cavorting around as if the story coming would end happily ever after. As if.
Shakespeare’s prologue is a bit of a spoiler, announcing that in the next ‘two hours’ traffic of our stage’, ‘a pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life’ – though is there anyone on the planet who does not know how this will end?
We’re immediately hurled into a fast-paced and engaging production in which scenes have been telescoped together so that they take place simultaneously, or are interlocked. It feels like the fast cutting back and forth between scenes that we see today on screen. With the exception of Cassie Layton, who plays Juliet and Samuel Valentine who plays Romeo, the small cast double up on roles by switching coats and dresses.
Two households, both alike in dignity,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
The prologue has already given us the heads up that there’s going to be trouble between the Capulets and the Montagues, and that’s exactly what ensues. I’ve always been taken by the insult the two camps hurl at each other in the opening scene:
Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?
Apparently, biting your thumb and then flicking it in the direction of the despised other was an especially offensive gesture known as ‘to give the fico‘, fico being the Italian for ‘fig’. So they’re basically saying ‘a fig for you’, or ‘wanna make something of it?’ According to the excellent programme, the Italians were noted for taking offence, with Thomas Nashe writing in The Unfortunate Traveller in 1594:
Nothing so long of memories as a dog; these Italians are old dogs and will carry an injury a whole year in memory. I have heard of a box on the ear that hath been revenged thirty years after.
The adolescent posturing of the opening scene is the key to this production: I don’t think I’ve ever seen the hysteria and solipsism of teenage passion brought out so clearly. Cassie Layton as Juliet and Samuel Valentine as Romeo play the teenage couple as sweet, inexperienced, lovestruck youths, caught up in emotional turmoil and increasingly defiant of, even indifferent to, the adult world.
This is captured particularly in Cassie Layton’s performance as Juliet. She shrieks and jumps for joy when the Nurse brings her the news of Romeo’s proposal, and – in a triumph of opportunistic staging – runs breathless round the Mansion House garden on her way to meet the Friar in his cell. Most of all, though, it’s the way in which she declaims her most passionate speech with near-hysteria:
Come, gentle night, come, loving, black-brow’d night,
Give me my Romeo; and, when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
O, I have bought the mansion of a love,
But not possess’d it, and, though I am sold,
Not yet enjoy’d: so tedious is this day
As is the night before some festival
To an impatient child that hath new robes
And may not wear them.
As she delivers the lines, almost almost shrieking with excitement, she trembles and shakes with the passion of teenage love. Meanwhile, Samuel Valentine’s portrayal of Romeo swung between a moody gawkiness and hormonal exuberance. Just to add to the atmosphere, local hormonal youths could be heard at various points in the drama scuffling and giggling in the undergrowth around us, and adding the occasional whoop to proceedings.
Truth to say, however, both of these actors were outshone by their fellow-actors. For Cassie Layton the problem was a failure to project her voice strongly enough for all her lines to be heard, while Samuel Valentine was outshone among the young blades by Matt Doherty (as Paris, Tybalt and Montague) and Steffan Donnelly as Mercutio.
But I thought the two outstanding performances of the evening were by Sarah Higgins as the Nurse and Steven Elder as Juliet’s father, Lord Capulet. Higgins played the Nurse with a Scottish accent, and excelled in her Lammas-tide speech where Juliet’s mum just can’t get her to shut up:
Come Lammas-eve at night shall she be fourteen.
Susan and she- God rest all Christian souls!-
Were of an age: well, Susan is with God;
She was too good for me: but, as I said,
On Lammas-eve at night shall she be fourteen;
That shall she, marry; I remember it well.
‘Tis since the earthquake now eleven years;
And she was wean’d,- I never shall forget it,-
Of all the days of the year, upon that day:
For I had then laid wormwood to my dug,
Sitting in the sun under the dove-house wall;
My lord and you were then at Mantua:-
Nay, I do bear a brain:-but, as I said,
When it did taste the wormwood on the nipple
Of my dug and felt it bitter, pretty fool,
To see it tetchy and fall out with the dug!
Shake quoth the dove-house: ’twas no need, I trow,
To bid me trudge:
And since that time it is eleven years;
For then she could stand alone; nay, by the rood,
She could have run and waddled all about;
For even the day before, she broke her brow:
And then my husband- God be with his soul!
A’ was a merry man- took up the child:
‘Yea,’ quoth he, ‘dost thou fall upon thy face?
Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit;
Wilt thou not, Jule?’ and, by my holidame,
The pretty wretch left crying and said ‘Ay.’
To see, now, how a jest shall come about!
I warrant, an I should live a thousand years,
I never should forget it: ‘Wilt thou not, Jule?’ quoth he;
And, pretty fool, it stinted and said ‘Ay.’
LADY CAPULET: Enough of this; I pray thee, hold thy peace.
Steven Elder as Capulet also shone in one particular scene – the one in which he tells Juliet that she will either marry Paris or ‘hang, beg, starve, die in the streets.’ Enraged by Tybalt’s death at Romeo’s hand, in Elder’s performance Capulet is transformed from the kind father into a bullying tyrant, hurling furniture about, and screaming at his daughter with unrestrained fury.
This was the third travelling production from the Globe Theatre which the Reader Organisation has hosted in Calderstones Park, and like the others it was a reliably entertaining and fast-paced production. I thought, though, that a false note was struck at the end as we watched the ‘star-cross’d’ lovers before immediately getting up for a song and dance. I know the Globe company always like to end a performance in this way, but here it struck a jarring note.
As mentioned earlier, the programme was particularly interesting. From it I learned that Shakespeare got the story from an Italian novella published around 1530 which was then translated into French before appearing in England as a long narrative poem by Arthur Brooke in 1562, called The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet. Of course, I knew that Shakespeare borrowed the story-lines for most of his dramas, but this seemed particularly like today’s film adaptations of best-selling books or Hollywood’s Americanised versions of European cinema successes.
Romeo and Juliet was first performed in London in or around 1596 by Shakespeare’s company, the Chamberlain’s Men. The programme notes add something I didn’t know: the first performance on the continent was a German version performed at Nordlingen in Bavaria in 1604 by one of several English companies that toured northern Europe in the last years of the 16th and the first half of the 17th centuries. The idea of English repertory companies touring Europe at that time was certainly new to me.
After Shakespeare’s time, the play was not performed in England until 1660. The programme notes Samuel Pepys dyspeptic reaction to seeing a revival in March 1662:
Thence to the Opera, and there saw Romeo and Juliet, the first time it was ever acted; but it is a play of itself the worst that ever I heard in my life, and the worst acted that ever I saw these people do, and I am resolved to go no more to see the first time of acting, for they were all of them out more or less.
Searching for that quote on the Internet took me to The Diary of Samuel Pepys website which has grown to elephantine proportions since it began as a blog in 2003. It now incorporates an encyclopaedia section with an extraordinarily detailed entry on the play.