By Constance Drugeot
Image: Marc Brenner
After living in London for three years, I finally went to see a play at the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. For my first time, I decided to book the iconic Romeo & Juliet, directed by Ola Ince and Rachel Lemon, as assistant director.
Having studied Shakespeare’s works as part of my studies for a long time but having never seen a live theatre production of Romeo & Juliet before, I was really looking forward to it! So, on a Saturday matinee in early October, I finally stepped inside the famous Globe Theatre.
The theatre in itself is quite beautiful, adorned with various paintings and ancient decorations that mix different styles. With its open roof, it makes it perfect for an afternoon or summer evening performance as you are surrounded by the bustling of the city and the changing colors of the sky. It doesn’t hold that many seats, but you can book very cheap standing seats that are available in the center, right in front of the stage. All of this reinforces the feeling of being a part of an old and intimate performance. The Globe Theatre truly is a majestic place, ideal for witnessing one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies.
Speaking of tragedy, this production comes alive in a post-pandemic world, where we all have been through so many hardships and anguish. We have witnessed first hand the damaging effects of mental illness and suicide as the world gets sicker and darker. We have seen the worst of what our society can do to the younger generation and to women by imposing ancient, outdated rules that condemn us if we decide to speak out. This then seemed to be the perfect moment to revive this great love story turned tragedy. Besides, the show features a mainly female-led creative team, alongside a diverse cast, allowing us a modern and contrasted view on our contemporary world.
The play is a vibrant and bold take on our society. Yet, it took me a while to really get into it. The discrepancy between the modern costumes (made by Jackie Orton) and the music (composed by Max Perryment with a five-piece band) with the language and setting was quite striking. It works, I just needed a bit of time to get used to it.
The play starts quite quickly and loudly, as we get introduced to the characters and the plot takes shape. The ball scene that happens at the start of the show becomes more of a wild party where everyone is mixed together. A lot is happening at the same time: the characters are celebrating loudly, the band is playing, some are dancing, and there is even a karaoke going on with Paris and Juliet performing modern songs, such as ‘Hello’ by Lionel Richie. It was nicely done but quite overwhelming as I didn’t know where to look. And if you weren’t careful, you could almost miss Romeo and Juliet meeting amidst this total chaos – maybe this was to foreshadow their tragic and dramatic end?
In contrast, the balcony scene is a peaceful and gorgeous moment that really made me fall in love with this production. This iconic scene was simply beautiful, with Juliet perched on her balcony, all dressed in white, and Romeo, dressed in black, roaming the crowd and climbing on ladders all around the theatre, looking absolutely hypnotised. It was a heartwarming moment between the two leads – played by Alfred Enoch and Rebekah Murrell. Their performance was just amazing and you could really feel the love growing between Romeo and Juliet.
From there, I was enthralled by the story and the pure, honest devotion of the characters. Each brought something new and bold to the show, making it so unique, so different from anything I’ve seen before. Despite knowing the ending, I couldn’t help but hope that it wouldn’t happen, as I grew to love these two teenagers who just wanted to live and be together.
I also want to mention the great performances of all the other characters, especially the Nurse (Sirine Saba) who brought energy, laughter, and parental love to the play. Benvolio, played by Zoe West, was also a highlight with his good humor, honesty, and good heart that made him a very empathetic character. Special shout-out to Clara Indrani who played Friar John despite a broken toe and wore crutches during the play.
The staging was also really beautiful to watch. During Romeo and Juliet’s wedding, red rose petals were thrown from the upstairs seats, falling into the audience. Juliet’s last resting place is a greenhouse decorated with gorgeous flowers, a sharp contrast to the brutal death scenes that happen around it. These are only a few moments from the play that really moved me, but there were so many more.
What was really striking was that every scene started with a quote or a modern fact, mentioning mental health and illness, depression, suicide, violence, drug abuse, misogyny, the toxicity of patriarchy, and violence upon women – thus, incorporating our own reality into this famous work of fiction. Everything felt very real, almost too real. Such as the scene when the Nurse is trying to get a message to Romeo and gets harassed on her way. Or, the scene where Romeo and Benvolio are running wild, with no supervision whatsoever, while Juliet is closely looked after, as a reflection of our society that lets boys go unpunished but forbids them to be sentimental, while girls bear the weight of patriarchy. Or, the dark reminder that when you are young, like Romeo and Juliet, love is a matter of life or death.
Keeping up with that, the deaths were extremely hard to watch. They were all very graphic and violent. There was (fake) blood in the wounds and all around the stage, and each character, except Juliet who kills herself with a gun, died slowly and painfully. After drinking the poison, Romeo convulses on the stage for a good two minutes, highlighting the gravity and severity of the situation. This shows that there is nothing romantic in what Romeo and Juliet just did to escape their reality and be together. It’s just terrible and sad.
Like the poison Romeo is drinking, what is happening in our society is a disease and it’s spreading. The play, with its modern appearance and approach, was in high contrast with the ancient building in which it was taking place, showing very brutally what happens when you refuse to change, to adapt, to listen. Romeo and Juliet just wanted a place to be themselves, to be free to live and love. But their society – our society – refused to hear them out and tried to force them into a model that didn’t fit them. And so, they took the only escape they knew. It was their only way to be truly free. Unfortunately, this is still the chosen escape of so many. So many, like these two teenagers, who do not think they have any other choice as they are trapped in this life, in this society that doesn’t see them. Doesn’t listen to them.
The play is asking us, imploring us to wake up and listen.
Romeo & Juliet is too often misinterpreted as the greatest love story of our time. But if this production made one thing clear, it’s that it’s not the case. It’s the greatest tragedy of our modern society.
So, if you are struggling or feeling alone, the production shared the details of the Samaritans (116 123, samaritans.org) and The Listening Place (020 3906 7676, listeningplace.org.uk) at the end of the play. It will help you find support and advice.