Romeo and Juliet is the ultimate whirlwind romance. Taking place over the course of just five days, generations critics and directors have struggled to accept the sheer speed with which everything happens: two teenagers meet on Saturday, are married by Monday and dead by Wednesday. Yet Headlong’s exhilarating, fast-paced production embraces what others have seen as difficulties in the text, with explosive consequences.
Tension crackles from the start of the play, staged in a renovated warehouse space with dangling naked bulbs and bare brick walls. This is a set that works as well to evoke Capulet’s heady rave of a party at the start as it does the dank catacombs that close the play. Designer Helen Goddard has created a slick elevated stage covered with a scrim, that is used as both projection screen and performance space. It offers the opportunity to show some of the many unspoken scenes in the play and add another level to our understanding of characters, from showing Romeo and Juliet’s marriage to revealing a passionate clinch between Lady Capulet and her lover, Tybalt.
There is something distinctly reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984 in this production: a digital clock projected almost onto the stage, which counts the days and hours until the inevitable. This contextualises Juliet’s world of constant observation and obedience in the Capulet house as part of a grander social state. The scene in which she attempts to defy her father’s decree to marry Paris is a moving and accurately observed dramatisation of parent/child tensions. Throughout, Keith Bartlett and Caroline Faber excel as Juliet’s parents; a man bound up with his public image and a woman lost, alone and only just managing to hold things together as she sees how close her daughter is to Brigid Zengeni’s wonderfully nosy, crude but devoted Nurse. They offset excellently the youthfulness and sheer joie de vivre of their daughter and her Romeo.
Daniel Boyd and Catrin Stewart capture a passion that is both electric and innocent. As well as doing what so few directors do in enjoying the speed of the story, Robert Icke delights in the immaturity of the characters. Boyd bounds around the stage with the endless energy of a puppy dog, and Stewart looks and acts every inch the innocent but determined 14-year-old daughter of a rich dynasty. Even in their most erotically charged moments, there is a simplicity in their relationship. It makes complete sense that they belong together: that they would die to be together. They are children, but they are also on the cusp of being adults. As they teeter on the brink, we are poised with them, ready to join the ecstasy of being together or the torture of being torn apart. Tom Mothersdale deserves a worthy mention here, too, bringing wonderful light and shade to the mercurial Mercutio – he has the audience in stitches with his constant innuendo followed by tears as his cocky Pete Doherty-esque party animal screams with laughter for the last time.
Throughout, Icke succeeds in answering the questions we have as an audience. In short, we understand why people do the things they do in the play. Friar Laurence’s lengthy soliloquy on the ability of plants to be both healing and harmful is a necessary diversion that advances the plot, but Icke re-imagines this as a professor giving a lecture on botanical properties, delivered with perfect confidence by the fantastic Simon Coates. The idea of the friar being an eager scientist or scholar works well to elucidate why he is so set upon his scheme of faking death. It is all a scientific experiment to him, but one that goes horribly wrong.
Icke also plays fast and loose with the text, repeating sections, and cutting and pasting bits of dialogue. He creates split scenes that raise the stakes and up the tension in this pacy production, externalising the adrenaline pumping through the veins of the desperate Romeo and Juliet as they long to be together. Playing with time and order too, the flashbacks make us all too aware of how the story escalates. Scenes are played out with one outcome, then again with the outcome that advances the plot; it is the small things we do that change how people react and set in motion our destiny.
Immediate, urgent and strong-willed, this is a Romeo and Juliet with a real story to tell. It is Shakespeare’s story of two star-crossed lovers, but it is also the story of two awkward teenagers in the grip of a first love that feels so real and consuming that they would give up everything for it. Passionate rather than patronising, explosive rather than implausible, Headlong paints a delicate picture of a love that has the power to change the destiny of two lovers, the lives of their families and the future of their dynasties.
Headlong’s Romeo and Juliet is playing at Hull Truck Theatre until Saturday 7 April on the last leg of its UK tour, co-produced with The Nuffield, Southampton and Nottingham Playhouse in association with Hull Truck. For tickets and more information, visit the theatre or Headlong’s website.
Image credits: Headlong