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The RSC stage looks painfully empty as this performance of Young Bloods spills into a silent auditorium. With no overarching aesthetic, no props and minimal tech, the stage is almost as bland as the political views it expresses. Through passages and monologues from Shakespeare’s finest, this troupe of highly skilled performers reminisce on 2020. I ask myself why this discussion of the erasure of young people’s voices is told by a group of significantly older adults?
There are so many inconsistencies in this production that I struggle to process the decisions made. In light of the Black Lives Matter movement, the RSC selects Shylock’s, “I am a Jew,” speech. This baffles me beyond belief; Othello and Aaron have so many immaculate soliloquies which could have been used. A black actor using Shakespeare’s text to reflect upon last year’s protests could have been absolutely ground-breaking.
The young person – speaking on LGBT+ rights – openly states that they are not part of the community before discussing such issues. I wonder why young queer voices were not sought after for the purposes of this segment. Changing Juliet’s pronouns to male and having it presented as a male/male relationship is hardly satisfactory (not to mention that the couple end up in a double suicide by the end of the play.) Where are Antonio and Bassanio or Viola and Olivia when you need a powerful and insightful gay reimagining?
Viola, as Cesario, melting over Orsino is performed with incredible vocal control, dripping in emotion. Crossdressing in Shakespeare is a major plot device and there exists boundless potential for deconstructing gender norms, yet with the trans community under continuing attack from radical transphobes, I feel the monologues selected for this segment fall into disrespectful territories. Lumping early-modern crossdressing with contemporary issues of gender expression unintentionally infers that trans bodies are by some means deceptive – or worse comedic.
I find myself writing often about the failures in adequate neurodivergent representation and unfortunately the RSC tumbles into this category. Hamlet’s, “I have of late – but wherefore I know not”, is used in context of the monumental mental health crisis following a year of mass-trauma. I understand the sentiment, but Hamlet’s exaggerated and forged madness is hardly representative of an already marginalised community lacking basic medical services. Not to mention the use of, “To thine own self be true”, falls short as it is more widely critically interpreted to mean “Stick to your class” rather than “Be yourself”. With the gap between the rich and poor greater than ever before in the history of humanity, I hunger for an ‘Eat the Rich’ Coriolanus speech.
There are upsides here. This production is joyously accessible, with the whole show interpreted through BSL. Deaf actress, Bea Webster steals the show (and my heart). Webster crushes each of her sections with incredible passion. Had there been an audience in the room, all of her jokes would be met with a roar of laughter. I live for her energy and the RSC needs to have her play Lady Macbeth or Ophelia.
This production highlights that if you can’t adequately honour a community through your representation of them, then don’t try. The immense lack of substance embedded here means that these incredibly talented performers speak shallow words.
Young Bloods played online on the 16th January. For more information, see the Royal Shakespeare Company website.