The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Romeo and Juliet

Romeo & Juliet

Romeo & Juliet is not a tragedy. Or at least half of it isn't. Up until mid-way through Act III, Romeo & Juliet is an out-and-out comedy. It's sunny and breezy, silly and joyful, young and romantic. It's very much in the mould of Two Gentlemen Of Verona, but with the greater wit and poetic invention of A Midsummer Nights' Dream.

I went to Verona once. Nice place. You can go and visit the balcony, supposedly the balcony from the famous balcony scene. Except there never was a famous balcony scene in real life, not in Verona. But anyway, there it is, you can go upstairs and stand on it and 'Wherefor art thou?' if you like. It's in a small square or piazza. There's a statue of Juliet there, and the tradition is to place your hand on the statue's right breast for luck. SHE'S ONLY SUPPOSED TO BE FOURTEEN but nevertheless this is acceptable and in no way paedo or noncey. Actually so many hands have felt up Juliet's booby over the years that it has taken rather a shine.

The small square or piazza is also heaving with tourists, as you might expect, and the other tradition - aside from the family-friendly recreational groping of an effigy of a barely pubescent girl - is to write messages of love on the walls. Every surface of the walls is covered with centuries of graffiti, some painted, some scratched, but now, in order to avoid further damage, the walls are covered with post-it notes and flutter like a horde of DayGlo moths. I couldn't help feeling that there was an ironic juxtaposition taking place, the act of making some sort of indelible romantic commitment on a post-it note .

Anyway, Romeo & Juliet, like Two Gentlemen of Verona, is set in Verona and concerns nauseating teenagers falling in love at the drop of a neckline. That's the odd thing about adolescence - there is a sort of amplification of the emotions, and everything is a matter of life and death, either incredibly important or incredibly insignificant and anyway you wouldn't understand I haaaate you I haaaate you I haaaate you. It's all embarrassingly disproportionate and, in retrospect, laughably naive, but nevertheless you try telling that to a teenager and they will just go up to their room in a petulant sulk and listen to Morrissey because he's the only one who Truly Understands My Pain.

Our play opens with Romeo. He has been spending a lot of time upstairs in his room with the curtains drawn listening to Morrissey. He's either sulking or wanking or both. He's in love with a girl called Rosalind, of which you will hear no more later. She is not in this play.

Actually it doesn't open with him at all. It opens with a prologue, with the Chorus introducing the play and telling us everything that will happen, how it will happen, and how it will all end. It's kind of like a narration for the intellectually impaired, like Howard Da Silva used to do to explain the complexities of Doctor Who to Americans. It's patronising, intrusive and unnecessary, and I think it may have been an 'addition' to the play - possibly just something they did on odd evenings when there were a lot of American tourists in.

Interestingly the prologue says that the following play will last 2 hours. It doesn't. It lasts 3 hours. Either he is lying, or there is something afoot here. I have a theory about this. I think the play, as performed back in the 16th century, probably did last 2 hours. But the published version was based on a rehearsal script - an unedited version - and so has a much longer running time. There is also evidence of Shakespeare adding extra scenes to his early plays to bump-them-up to proper play length - the totally superfluous prologue of The Taming of the Shrew, for instance. And the front cover of the 1605 printing of Hamlet - I have a picture of it in a book - says

'Newly imprinted and enlarged to almoft as much againe as it was, according to the true and perfect Coppie.'

In other words, an extended director's cut. And, like those bloody extra-long Lord of the Rings films, it includes absolutely everything that should have been left on the cutting room floor, without any discrimination. And I think Romeo & Juliet may have been 'bonus scene'-d up a little as well.

Anyway, Romeo's up in his room, wanking. Two families, Montagues and Capulets. You know the drill, it's West Side Story but with fewer maracas. They are not getting on for some not-particularly-well-explored reason.

Romeo meets up with two of his Montague mates, Benvolio and Mercutio. Benvolio seems like a nice guy. Mercutio is a bit of a hot-head, and is constantly talking and making dirty jokes. He is the Hero's Mate Who Talks Shit All The Time. (Another one of these will turn up in The Merchant of Venice). As a character, he's very funny and likeable and one of the reasons why the first half of this play is so clearly a comedy.

Another one of the reasons is the Nurse. She's looking after Juliet, a Capulet girl. Nursey is basically the character from Blackadder II, a sad old woman with an udder fixation. She is obsessed with bodily functions, sex, tits, and breast feeding in particular. She will not stop going on about her milky expressions. Eventually Lady Capulet has to tell her to shut up.

Juliet's dad, Mr Capulet, is organising a big party so that Juliet can check out Paris, a bloke her dad thinks she should marry. Elsewhere in the town Romeo learns that Rosalind (who is not in this play) will also be at the party, so he arranges to attend the bash with his mates Benvolio and Mercutio. It's a fancy dress thing so they can go in disguise. Benvolio's plan. Nothing can possibly go wrong.

Something goes wrong. Romeo meets Juliet at the party. One of them has a sudden rush of blood to the head, another of them has a sudden rush of blood in the other direction. It's true love. Romeo immediately forgets all about Rosalind, because, let's face it, she's not in this play. But she is possibly my favourite character in Shakespeare so far. She’s so enigmatic.

Next up it's the balcony bit. You know the balcony bit. It turns up in sketch shows whenever they can't think of anything else to do. It'll probably be in Swinging quite soon. But I think all of those parodies of the balcony scene have been getting it wrong down the years. Because the balcony scene isn't supposed to be serious and heartfelt. Or at least, that's not how it's written. It's written in a silly, sympathetic manner, but is also taking the piss. Because whilst we are supposed to warm to Romeo & Juliet, we do so because we are laughing at them and their naivety. Their conversation is full of stuff which is them trying to sound witty and worldly, but which is actually soppy and daft. It is that teenage telephone conversation that will never end. Each time you think Romeo will leave, there's always one more 'Goodbye' 'Goodbye' 'Love you,' 'Love you', 'You leave the balcony scene first', 'No, you leave the balcony scene first' 'Okay, let's leave it together. One two three.' 'Are you still here?' 'Yes' 'Me too' 'Love you' Love you' and so on.

What is important here, though, is that Romeo and Juliet are funny. They may not match the wit of that bickering couple in Much Ado About Nothing but they are nevertheless a lot of fun. This scene is supposed to be OTT in its emotions, because that's what teenagers are like, and it's what makes them amusing and endearing. It's love at its most unworldly, and yet to hear them speak, you think the world is about to end.

And it will. Barely a scene passes in this play without someone having a premonition of how it will end. This gets irritating. I know there's probably some good dramatic irony reason why half the characters are f*cking clairvoyant but if I was editing this f*cker that would be the second thing I'd take out, after I'd taken out the prologue. It just stretches credibility.

Anyway, Romeo and Juliet arrange to meet up, using the Nurse as a go-between. All lovely, funny stuff. They meet up at Friar Lawrence's place and he marries them. To each other. But they don't shag.

All is going swimmingly. I'll stress for a third time - up until this point all has been comedy, comedy, comedy. And for this play to work, it has to have felt like a comedy up until this point, because the power of what follows, the frisson of knowing what is to come, relies totally on the first half being a laugh riot. Play the first half straight, play the whole thing as a tragedy, and you're buggered - you have nowhere to go. It's all about the contrast of styles, it's doing something clever and literary like what Robert Shearman would do.

Back in the streets of Verona and Benvolio and Mercutio are arsing about. Mercutio is still talking endless streams of shit. Romeo turns up, feeling smug about His Big Secret. And then who should happen along but Tybalt - a Capulet and a twat. Tybalt picks on Romeo (he saw him gatecrashing the fancy dress party and does not approve) but Romeo, being loved-up, doesn't rise to the bait. Instead it's Mercutio who gets drawn into a tussle with Tybalt. Tybalt kills him.

Now this is the big moment. This is where comedy flips into tragedy. It should be a massive, gear-crunching wrench of tone for the audience. Because the funny guy, the guy we all liked, the guy who was like Xander, has just been killed. It's a f*ckoff big twist.

And suddenly the laughter stops and everything is serious. What was a lark is a lark no longer. (More on larks later). This is something that Shakespeare was shit-hot at - the jarring change of tone for dramatic effect. Douglas Adams raves about it in The Unfolding Text.

Anyway, Tybalt has killed Romeo's bezzer mate - so Romeo kills him back. Oh f*ck, thinks the audience, this is not going to turn out well. And it doesn't. Luckily the guy in charge of Verona is lenient and banishes Romeo instead of ordering his execution. This doesn't please the Montagues, who are baying for his blood. It probably doesn't please the Capulets too much either.

It also doesn't please Juliet when she hears about it. God, you should hear her go on. Blah blah blah blah blah. There is pages and pages of this guff, oh I feel bad about Romeo, oh I feel bad about Tybalt, should I feel worse about Romeo or about Tybalt? WHATEVER!

She instructs her nurse - the one obsessed with lactation - to go find Romeo and see what's going on. Because, you see, this play is set several years before the introduction of text messaging. Indeed, if anything, it serves as an advertisement for mobile phone technology. Because none of the tragedy that ensues would have ensued if Romeo and Juliet had had an O2 one-to-one.

Romeo is also none too pleased about being banished. He goes a bit mad with self-pity. Both he and Juliet have a bit of a death-wish, and it is all that Friar Lawrence can do to stop them falling on their own daggers. Then the Nurse arrives and tells Romeo that Juliet has been a bit upset recently. This is good news to Romeo - and he decides to take advantage of this and shimmies up Juliet's drainpipe. They shag.


Next morning, and Juliet and Romeo wake up amidst some seriously stained bedsheets. Juliet starts going on about larks. She doesn't want this night to end, basically. Romeo isn't so sure - never mind lighting another candle, he's barely got a half a wick left.

Enter Juliet's mum. Juliet's mum has some good news - Juliet is to marry Paris next Thursday. You remember Paris, he was at the fancy dress party. Didn't say much, but that's because he didn't have any lines. But he was definitely there, oh yes, and anyone who says that Shakespeare forgot to put him in that scene is a liar. He was there, standing at the back in the trousers.

But Juliet is already married to Romeo! But she can't tell her mum that! It's like something from Home & Away, isn't it? Juliet tells her mum she can't marry Paris. Her dad isn't too pleased to hear this either. Pure soap opera, you may cry.

Act IV, and Juliet goes to have a chat with Friar Lawrence. Should she kill herself now, or wait until her parents find out she is married and then get killed? But Friar Lawrence has a better idea. What if Juliet takes some drugs that will make her look dead, when in fact she isn't!

You may recall the Master using a similar plan in The Deadly Assassin. Or Jack Bauer, at the end of Season 4 of 24. It's an enduring theme. Relevant.

Juliet's body will then be placed in the Montague family tomb. Where she will lie, until the next day when she will wake - and Romeo will be waiting for her. And then together they can run off and start a new life together. It's a good plan. NOTHING CAN POSSIBLY GO WRONG.

Haven't we been here before with Pyramus and Thisbe?

To begin with, all goes to plan. Juliet takes the medicine and is discovered the next morning. There is a lot of 'oh, lamentable day'-ing. Her mum isn't too chuffed either. Then Friar Lawrence turns up and says 'Ooh, dead is she? Better move her body to the family tomb then. Ahm.'

There's a lovely bit here from Juliet's dad here where he says 'Hang on - don't cancel the wedding celebrations! Just tell the caterers to do a cold buffet and get the band to play something sad.' Well, he's not going to get his money back, is he?

Act V and Romeo is bumming around in Mantua. He gets the news that Juliet is dead. What does he do? He decides to kill himself. First he will buy some poison, then he will visit Juliet in her tomb and then he will take the poison and die with her. Because he's romantic like that.

This is where it all gets rather tense.

Friar Lawrence learns that the messenger he had sent to tell Romeo that it was all a cunning plan hasn't delivered the message. IF ONLY THEY HAD HAD MOBILE PHONES.

So this could go either way. If Juliet wakes up before Romeo gets to her... then he'll discover her alive, and won't take the poison. If the Friar can get to Romeo before he takes the poison... then they can wait for Juliet to wake up and everything will be fine.

But unfortunately Romeo arrives early. He bumps into Paris outside the tomb, and there's a bit of a fracas, which escalates to a kafuffle, followed by a brouhaha, and before you know it he's gone and stabbed Paris. That's two Montagues he's killed in as many days. It's habit-forming.

Romeo enters the tomb and discovers Juliet, apparently dead. So he kills himself. Juliet wakes up - and the Friar-man rushes in from the pouring rain. The Friar rushes out again (not totally sure about the plotting here, Bill) and Juliet kills herself. Then various Montagues and Capulets rush in and the Friar explains about what has been going on, with the wedding at whatnot, and Mr Montague and Mr Capulet settle their differences.

And there you have it. An absolutely terrific play. A huge, gorgeous romantic swell of emotion. An emotional rollercoaster. Fast, funny, economic, rich, deep, fruity, memorable, poetic.

Moving on.

The BBC production.

Oh f*cking dear.

Oh f*cking dear oh dear oh dear.

This was the first in their Shakespeare series. It has clearly had a lot of money spent on it. It still looks cheap. It looks like the f*cking city out of The Pirate Planet.

This play has had lots of very good actors in it. Many of them are not very good in it. It is badly lit, badly scored, with stupid costumes and is utterly, atrociously, awfully directed.

Bear in mind some of my earlier points. For this play to work, the first half needs to be funny. This is crucial. Mercutio needs to be likeable. The Nurse needs to be likeable.

Nope. None of that here. It's all serious. It's all deathly boring. It's all performed with no subtlety, no nuance, no insight.

Another example. Balcony scene. Romeo espies Juliet in her see-through shorty-nightie and the first thing that grabs his attention is her eyes. That is not the problem. The problem is that Romeo then talks about Juliet speaking silently and looking upward to heaven. Clearly he is referring to the fact that she is saying her prayers.

But not in this play. No, she's just staring into space with a vacant, doleful, listless expression.

This isn't the only instance of this. When Juliet takes the poison, she then hallucinates that she can see Tybalt beckoning her to the afterlife. Not in this production, though. In this production she gets the hallucination and then takes the poison.

It's utterly ham-fisted. And that's before we get to the performances. Now, I don't know how much of the blame to put on the actors - I think the problem is that the director wasn't telling them what to do. But the performances are all over the place, tone-wise. There's no consistency.

We have a star-studded cast. Many of them are very good. Some of them are surprisingly good. But, well, one example. Anthony Andrews. Or, as I shall call him from now on, Anthony f*cking Andrews. Christ he is bad. What he is doing is the performance of someone who is desperate to get singled out for a mention in the review. He just does far too much. He puts inflection on every syllable. He is constantly moving, upstaging and throwing in business. He tries to steal every scene. He is dangerously close to going 'hurrah' and slapping his thigh.

And he also does something that really f*cking annoys me. There should be a word for it. What it is, is when an actor is given a speech in which there is a figurative reference to the male member i.e. 'Prick love for pricking', the actor will inevitably illustrate the metaphor by thrusting out his groin, as though to say 'Look - It's a joke! He meant to say PENIS! Aah!'

From now on, this will be called 'doing an Anthony Andrews'.

I want to shoot actors who do that sort of thing with a shotgun like the one that Yosemite Sam had.

So, Anthony Andrews. His is clearly the most appalling performance in this play. At no point does he get within a hundred million miles of the character of Mercutio. But also deserving mention in the annals of f*ck-up are Romeo and Juliet.

Romeo is played by Patrick The High Life Ryecart. Now, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking 'But he was quite good in Mindwarp.' Yes, he was, and I enjoyed the bit with the cup of tea too. But he isn't a Romeo. He's not handsome enough. He's not energetic enough. And, to be frank, he is not young enough. He looks about 35. Which is bit dodgy, considering JULIET IS SUPPOSED TO BE ONLY FOURTEEN.

Juliet is played by Rebecca Saire. Who hasn't worked a great deal since, unsurprisingly. She played Quatermass's granddaughter (didn't have any lines, now I understand why) and I think she turned up in a Fry & Laurie sketch where she had to choose between soup and broth. She is about the right age - maybe a few years over, but nothing unforgivable. But, well, I would describe her performance as wooden, except wood doesn't usually suck all the life out of a scene.

So the end result is that when Romeo and Juliet are exchanging dirty, flirty dialogue in their first meeting, Juliet looks bored shitless and Romeo looks like he’d much rather be lurking in the shadows.

Oh god, the dancing! The dancing! F*ck me! STOP THE DANCING! Prancing about in tights and codpieces! This is the sort of shit that gives Shaky a bad name. EVERYONE LOOKS LIKE TWATS!

But back to the performances. Only occasionally to Patrick and Rebecca get across the meaning of what they are actually saying. Rebecca merely raises and lowers her eyebrows in the hope that will provide meaning, and Patrick barks out his dialogue like some sort of mad staccato Dalek doing an impersonation of Peter Sellers' impersonation of Lawrence Olivier's impersonation of Richard III.

To be fair, everyone else is quite good. John Gielgud plays the Chorus as a sort of bemused homosexual-about-town. Michael Paddington Bear Hordern is almost as good as he was as Ludicrus Sextus in Up Pompeii. Celia Johnson isn't bad as the nurse - that's Celia Johnson of 'Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson' fame, she was in Brief Encounter a kind of 1940's Trainspotting. There's John Watchdoom! Paul in there as Mr Montague. And Alan Rickman looks a complete dick with his pudding-bowl hairdo as Tybalt.

Who else? Well, I'm getting to the interesting ones now. Christopher Strauli is Benvolio - you wait twenty years for a Christopher Strauli and then two come along at once - and Debbie observed that he had a very good arse. Playing a page is obscure 80's alternative comedian also-ran and alleged Warriors Gate Tharil Mark Arden. Playing Friar John is John 'Fleet Warden Samor' Savident, I said playing Friar John is John 'Fleet Warden Samor' Savident. As Peter is Paul Henry, who I once saw as Buttons in panto in Stafford but who is probably best known for being Benny out of Crossroads. He's actually very good, and possibly is a great talent gone to waste, though to be fair he is one of those people with a face that is too big for their head. And his arse looked like a bag of potatoes.

But the big news is that playing Lady Capulet is the radiant, lovely, latter-day gay icon, Jacqueline Hill. Barbara!

She's rather good in it. A shame the rest of it is so f*cking bad, really.

Next up: Love's Labour’s Lost

1 comment:

  1. I can't remember if this is covered in the dvd booklet, but the first of the BBC Shakespeare's to be taped was Much Ado About nothing with Michael York as Benedict and Penelope Keith and Beatrice. It was rehearsed, taped, edited, publicised but then never broadcast or released. According to Susan WIllis's brilliant book about the history of the production of these plays, "Stories of this production have undoubtedly magnified over the years - how unfortunate the "chemistry" and the casting were [...] the first press report rumoured it would be held until 1980 to retape parts to avoid someone's "heavy accent" then "because it is not considered good enough for transmission". Willis then goes on to explain that it was mostly to do with internal politics and a power play between Cedric Messina the initial producer of the plays and other parts of the BBC. Shaun Sutton when later asked about it said that he thought "the approach was a little ordinary and that we could do better."

    Of course all of this makes me wish you can see it all the more. Tantalisingly, this page says that Front Row on Radio 4 did something about in April 2008 and even played clips - it's still in the BBC's archives. Perhaps it'll be made available in 2016 as part of their massive project to put their Shakespeare holdings online for "academic" use.