Does Romeo and Juliet romanticise suicide as much as it does love? The thought of two teenage lovers, so distraught at the thought of not being together that they would kill themselves, would prompt shock and devastation in the current era of mental health awareness. Yet the most classic and – arguably – well-known tale of suicide via heartbreak is often painted and perceived as poetic or graceful, rushed through without the necessary poignancy or sombre tone. Ola Ince’s production at the Globe, meanwhile, offers a much-needed take. It grounds itself with modern day comparisons and in doing so, offers a stark and striking dose of reality.
If it’s not that, then it becomes a tale of cacophony becoming harmony – a simple, expected narrative to be expected but it is nonetheless executed with charisma under Richard Henry’s musical direction. The slouching, drunken party in which our lovers meet is energised when characters profess their admiration for another, like the beating heart itself, if you will. A riotous version of “This Girl” by Cooking on 3 Burners (later remixed by Kungs) and a song titled “Who’s Got The Bag” are particularly memorable. Adam Gillen, no stranger to flamboyance given his role in Amadeus, is animated when accompanied by thumping instrumentals during a certain monologue. In what is perhaps indicative of what is the most powerful part of this production, I can’t recall which monologue (I assume it was the one relating to Queen Mab), but I do remember the red and black screen at the back of the stage bearing new mental health statistics at regular intervals.
It’s this which helps to translate what is a historic text into the present day. “20 percent of teenagers experience depression before reaching adulthood,” reads one. “75 percent of all children with mental health problems are not receiving treatment,” says another. Some aren’t even statistics, merely statements: “emotional neglect is a killer”. When the underlying theme of mental health becomes apparent, Ince’s production becomes more than just another jubilant and modern adaptation of a Shakespeare classic. It feels bleak, inescapable, predetermined and perhaps, to some extent, suffocating.
There is a real sense that both Romeo (Harry Potter and Tree‘s Alfred Enoch) and Juliet (Scenes with girls’ Rebekah Murrell) are lacking the outlet they need to express their emotional baggage. Juliet is threatened with disownment by her father when she refuses to marry Paris (powerfully so in this performance by Silas Carson), and soon Nurse (Sirine Saba) is forced to accept the inevitable. We’ve seen the way the story goes before; we know how it ends. Yet there’s a forgotten tragedy well highlighted in this adaptation at the failings which lead them down that path: the underlying family feud, the neglect from their parents and the death of those closest to them – Mercutio (Gillen) and Tybalt (Will Edgerton), of course.
And when death happens in this production, it lingers. Bodies don’t get up and walk offstage when the scene changes, Gillen and Edgerton remain a part of the play until the very end, helping with moving props and watching on as other characters talk. Death isn’t a throwaway device here, it carries its true weight and severity, and is no doubt elevated by the simple fact that each actor introduces themselves and the role(s) they play. No death is poetic under Ince – quite the opposite.
When Romeo takes his poison, it is by no means blissful like some other adaptations would choose to portray it. Enoch coughs, splutters and convulses on stage for several minutes, the audience in a shocked silence. It’s uncomfortable, it’s unsettling, but it’s long enough. Juliet’s death – which I’ll keep secret for the avoidance of spoilers – is just as devastating.
The music, if that was indeed a theme in this production, is bleak and melancholy at the very end. Jacob Hughes’ red and black colour scheme shows love in its most triumphant red, and death in its darkest black. In the Globe’s Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s tragedy is once again significant.
Romeo and Juliet is now playing at Shakespeare’s Globe until 17 October.
It will be live streamed on 10 July and 7 August, while a Midnight Matinee performance will take place on 17 July.
Note: If you’ve been affected by any of the issues raised in this review, there is help and support available. Samaritans can be contacted 24/7, 365 days a year, for free. You can call 116 123 or email email@example.com.
Production Images: Marc Brenner.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Romeo and Juliet’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this review and all opinions stated are honest and my own.