Juliet Capulet of Shakespeare’s world-renowned Romeo & Juliet might be one of, if not the most famous female character ever written for the stage. Countless big names have played her including Judi Dench, Claire Danes and Lily James. But what most of these people have in common is that they’re often white, able-bodied, slim, cis-gendered women. In Redefining Juliet, writer Storme Toolis (who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair) asks why people like her, women whose femininity and authenticity have been questioned by society, aren’t often cast as the famous romantic lead.
Redefining Juliet’s set is gorgeous. Designed by Kate Lane, it features draping velvet fabrics and silk curtains over frames, creating doorways for the cast to walk through. There are grapes, quills, books and papers stacked high and trailing deep green ivy. It’s a luxurious set-up, straight out of the sixteenth century, and is perfect for the cast, one of whom is in a wheelchair, to easily navigate. It’s also just very nice to look at. Lane creates a beautiful space, representative of its time, for the story to play out on.
The cast is comprised of Athena Stevens, James Le Lacheur and Lara Steward. Stevens is an actor, writer, director and activist who was born with athetoid cerebral palsy. Le Lacheur is an actor, and identifies as a transgender woman. Steward is an actor, who also happens to be deaf. Together, the three perform the most well-known scenes, featuring Ms Capulet interrupting here and there to question the role, who can play it, and why.
Steward has the grace and romanticism of Juliet pinned, and plays her with sweetness and naivety. Signing through most of the performance, when she admittedly unexpectedly opens her mouth and speaks, it is to powerfully question why people assume she can’t do things. Le Lacheur also gives Juliet the same sweetness, but with more youth and giddy excitement at the thought of her Romeo, and delivers funny, witty little lines about the possibility of casting a Trans person as Juliet.
Stevens, however, gives her more bite than Juliet is traditionally given. She describes a very personal experience, not too dissimilar from that which Juliet finds herself in in the final scene of Shakespeare’s play, and then questions why Juliet didn’t put down the dagger too. Shakespeare’s beautiful prose is interrupted by Stevens asking 13-year-old Juliet to “grow up”. It’s nice to see a Juliet with a little more passion and fervour, but at the same time, she’s supposed to be a young girl, wildly in love and a little bit stupid. If on the night Romeo had appeared beneath her balcony, she’d shouted down ‘sod off – I barely know you!’ there would be no play. She also describes the outcome of the play as insinuating that “suicide is a reasonable answer”, which I think is unfair. I’m pretty sure it’s universally agreed that Romeo & Juliet hinges on the overreaction of the century from a pair of hormonal teenagers, which is what makes the tragedy so tragic. Together, these comments seem like an out of place criticism, as Redefining Juliet begins as questioning of who is cast in the role and why, and becomes a criticism of Juliet, a 400-year-old character.
Despite this, Redefining Juliet is asking important questions. The whole performance is signed by a BSL interpreter – why isn’t this seen more often? And why can’t we have a transgender or deaf Juliet? Or a Juliet with a disability? While it may go off on a bit of a tangent towards the end, anything that promotes inclusivity in this way should be championed, and Redefining Juliet is still creating essential discussion about the diversity and accessibility in British theatre.
Redefining Juliet played at The Pit at the Barbican until November 30. For more information and tickets, click here.