Romeo and Juliet is a play that can come in many guises. As one of Shakespeare's best-known tragedies, it's tale of star-crossed lovers caught in the crossfire of families at war has been
reinterpreted umpteen times down the centuries, with Leonard Bernstein turning it into teen-gang musical West Side Story while for his 1996 big-screen version Baz Luhrmann took inspiration from MTV. More recently the Royal Shakespeare Company presented Shakespeare's play on Twitter as Such Sweet Sorrow, with actors engaging with other Twitter users as well as each other.
The last time Shakespeare's Globe brought Romeo and Juliet to Scotland was back in 2007, when they played it outdoors in Glasgow University Quad in a production that featured future Game of Thrones star Richard Madden as Romeo. Eight years on, Shakespeare's Globe artistic director is back with a new touring production that moves indoors for dates at Dundee Rep and the Theatre Royal, Glasgow.
“Touring was in Shakespeare’s blood and in the blood of the company of actors he worked with,” says Dromgoole. “It was with great pride that we resurrected this tradition after a 400-year break when we first toured Romeo and Juliet. The tours are now a large feature of our summer season as they enable us to take our fresh and revitalised productions of Shakespeare’s plays and perform them to new audiences in spectacular environments. In my final year at The Globe I wanted to return to Romeo and Juliet and take a new version to castles, gardens, churches and theatres around the UK and Europe.
“Our troupes of actors perform on a traditional booth stage inspired by Elizabethan paintings and etchings. This production adheres to the Elizabethan touring model, and is a rare opportunity to experience the freshness and simplicity of a theatre tour as it was in Shakespeare’s day. We cast eight actors who play all the roles, and have adapted the text so that some scenes can be played almost simultaneously. In terms of design, we wanted to convey the idea of 1920s travelling players, tattooed up and ready to go, slipping on signifiers of costume and character rather than full Elizabethan garb so that we could be light on our feet and tour the set easily and quickly from place to place.”
For Stirling-born Sarah Higgins, who plays the Nurse, Lady Montague and Balthasar, such an approach is certainly keeping her on her toes.
“It's this intense mixture of fighting and dancing and laughing,” says Higgins, who made her professional debut last year at Edinburgh International Festival in the National Theatre of Scotland's epic staging of Rona Munro's The James Plays. “The way the scenes are split so they're played together, it doesn't feel like a long play. It keeps things choppy, and I think allows audiences to get more involved in what's going on. That's helped along by the music, and by an opening number where we promenade through the audience.”
Dromgoole may have moved things indoors for his new take on Romeo and Juliet, but regardless of setting the play remains very much the thing.
“Our 2007 production was set around a VW camper van which the actors used as a base and background to the performance and which could be driven into castles and gardens across the UK,” Dromgoole says. “This year, even though in Scotland we're performing indoors, the essence of what we do hasn’t changed. Our performers still interact with the audience and the emphasis is on the text just like it would be at the Globe. We even keep the lights on in the auditorium to reproduce the shared light of the stage and audience of our outdoor London home.”
Finding actors with enough depth as well as youthfulness to carry off the play's title roles is never easy, especially for such an extensive tour as this one.
“For Romeo & Juliet we were looking for openness, youthfulness and for people who the audience would fall in love with quickly,” Dromgoole explains of his decision to cast Samuel Valentine and Cassie Layton as the couple. “As we knew this tour would last six months, we also had to look at the casting as a whole and see how the group dynamics worked on stage and off, as it is always important to have a happy company.”
This current tour of Romeo and Juliet comes as Dromgoole prepares to step down as artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe, which he has run after taking over from Mark Rylance in 2005. With Dromgoole's departure announced in 2013, there is still a while yet until his successor, Kneehigh's Emma Rice, takes up the reins in April 2016, and beyond Romeo and Juliet there is still plenty to keep Dromgoole occupied.
“We are currently touring Hamlet to every country in the world,” he says, “It was 115 at the last count. We've just toured King John in this Magna Carta year to historic sites associated with the play, and are taking Much Ado About Nothing around the UK and South America.
“I'm currently directing Measure for Measure, then in October we're opening our third season in our indoor Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. I'll be directing The Tempest, and I'm visiting our Hamlet company when I can, so there's still a lot to prepare before I can start thinking about the end. However, I think after April 2016 I may go to France and make jam.”
Romeo and Juliet, Dundee Rep, July 14-17. Theatre Royal, Glasgow, August 4-8.www.dundeerep.co.uk
The Herald, July 14th 2015