Romeo and Juliet, presented by Action to the Word at Camden People's Theatre, London, 14-26 February 2012

Thomas Larque

Larque, Thomas.  "Review of Romeo and Juliet, presented by Action to the Word at Camden People's Theatre, London, 14-26 February 2012." EMLS 16.2 (2012): 10. URL:


Directed by Alexandra Spencer-Jones.  Assistant direction by Tom O'Brien.  Lighting by David Mack.  With Violet Ryder (Juliet), Eddie Usher (Romeo), Luke Harrison (Friar Laurence), Ewa Jaworski (Lady Capulet), Oscar Blend (Capulet), Simon Cotton (Paris), Matthew Bunn (Peter), Kathy Trevelyan (Nurse), Tom Maguire (Benvolio), Harry Lobek (Tybalt), Martin McCreadie (Mercutio), Corin Stuart (Prince Escalus), Rhian Marston-Jones (Rosaline, Apothecary), Miriam Elwell-Sutton (Chorus), Lucy Bailey (Lady Montague).


  1. Action to the Word's hot-blooded Romeo and Juliet (directed by Alexandra Spencer-Jones) brought the story convincingly to life in a modernised English setting.  Modern dress can sometimes seem an incongruous add-on to Shakespearean performances, or an excuse for cheap costuming, but here the modernity was carefully integrated into the production.  From karaoke at the Capulet party to the London accents of Juliet and her mother, and from the trendy new-age inner-city vicar (in fashionable street clothes; a crystal instead of a crucifix at his neck) to the dangerous escalation of fistfights into fatal brawls by the introduction of a knife, this Romeo and Juliet fitted the ancient tragedy into a twenty-first century environment very successfully.

  2. Performed in a fringe venue, in the round, with only two beds in opposing corners of the stage, a stepladder for access to Juliet's bedroom, and graffitied police-taped walls to act as scenery, the production relied principally upon the actors' physicality to fill the space.  Strong casting, joined with the enthusiasm and energy of the actors, made the stage teem with life throughout.

  3. The production began with its only misplaced note.  Before the play started, Romeo (Eddie Usher) was seen in bed with Rosaline (Rhian Marston-Jones), who crept out of the bed to escape before Romeo's mother arrived to rouse him in the morning.  This seemed very much against the grain of Shakespeare's text.  Despite the staging, Romeo duly told Benvolio that he was “Out of her favour where I am in love” (1.1.166) and agreed with Benvolio that Rosaline “hath sworn that she will still live chaste” (1.1.215), so that Romeo's changeable heart in Shakespeare's script became an apparently deliberate abandonment of a girlfriend, rather than a more romantic and practical change to a reciprocated love.

  4. Things improved from that point.  The important exposition of the first scene was deftly handled by a male Sampson and female Gregory as young gang members, the first showing off his masculinity while his girlfriend egged him on, angrily demanding that he “Say 'better'!” to his Capulet rival as a challenge to Sampson's manhood rather than because of Benvolio's approach.  As others arrived to join it, the brawl became a suitably chaotic heaving mass of fighting and shouting until the Prince entered to still the melee with a loud command.

  5. The lovers aside, this production was built most strongly on three groups of characters–Lord and Lady Capulet, the Nurse and Peter, and the young men of the feuding families. Taking inspiration from Shakespeare's references to an “old” Lord Capulet (1.2.3) with a wife in her twenties (“I was your mother much upon these years / That you are now a maid” [1.3.72-73]), this Lady Capulet (Ewa Jaworski) was a glamorous blonde trophy-wife to a middle-aged, shaven-headed, and bullish Lord Capulet (Oscar Blend).  Evidently unhappy with her marriage, Lady Capulet took a special pleasure in dancing with Tybalt and Paris at the Capulet party, before drunkenly singing a melancholy karaoke duet, alongside Rosaline, with the lyrics “You could be my unintended / choice to live my life extended / You could be the one I'll always love” (“Unintended” by Muse).  The song seemed to represent at once Lady Capulet's frustration and longings (apparently separating “unintended” idealised romantic love from her unhappy marriage with her “intended”, Lord Capulet, whose affectionate arm she shrugged off angrily, morosely intoxicated, at the end of the party), and the “unintended” but heartfelt first meeting of the young star-crossed lovers, which was happening as the song played in the background.

  6. Lord Capulet was initially a big teddy-bear of a man; his gruff whisper of a voice was surprisingly soft and wheedling, and his attitude towards his loved wife and darling daughter was sympathetic and consoling.  Despite being an originator of the feud, he seemed tired of it – in the first fight he joined Lady Capulet in restraining Tybalt's aggression – and in discussing the feud with Paris, and preventing Tybalt from attacking Romeo at the Capulet party, he was relaxed and pacifistic.  Only when Tybalt threatened to rebel did Capulet's potential for explosive violence become apparent in a flash of shouted anger that turned the heads of other party guests, but it was soon submerged.  Later, when Juliet refused to marry Paris he responded with ominous calm and sarcasm, but when Lady Capulet tried to intervene he turned casually and struck her to the ground.  Turning back to Juliet, he spoke slowly and clearly, gently rolling up his right sleeve, before suddenly hitting her hard in the face, leaving Juliet and her mother sobbing on the floor.  Over as soon as it began, this domestic violence was all the more frightening for its fleeting nature, and for Capulet's threatening bulk.  Even without the danger of Tybalt, there was little question that Juliet's and Romeo's illicit relationship put their lives at risk.

  7. While the Capulets gave depth and emotional power to the tragic aspects of the story, Peter and the Nurse provided some welcome comic relief.  Peter (Matthew Bunn) was an outrageously camp gay stereotype, in sprayed-on leather trousers.  He filed Lady Capulet's nails, fancied Paris as much as Lady Capulet did, and returned (late) with the Nurse–after meeting Romeo–with exciting presents for Juliet from upmarket clothes shops, storming off in a huff when Juliet ignored them and told the Nurse to send him away.  Kathy Trevalyen as the Nurse combined comedy with realism, as a gossipy busybody living vicariously through her young charge.  She caught Romeo and Juliet kissing at the party, and coughed to part them.  Despite her initial denial, she knew very well who Romeo was, and identified him without asking for information from others.  In on the plot from the very beginning, she seemed not to care about the consequences of trading Juliet off to the son of her great enemy (“he that can lay hold of her / Shall have the chinks” [1.5.115-116]).

  8. One of the most important elements in creating the atmosphere of a successful production of Romeo and Juliet is the realism of the feud.  This depends on the violent chemistry and stage-fighting abilities of the Montague youths and Tybalt.  Here, Mercutio (Martin McCreadie) and the Montague young men were credible both as friends and gang members – with Romeo  and Benvolio (Tom Maguire) under the sway of the flamboyant machismo of the hypersexual Mercutio.  Apparently unable to speak without falling into sexual puns, playful phallic gestures, and simulated humping of his male friends, McCreadie's Mercutio was a rubber-faced comedian among his peers, without sacrificing the realism and danger underlying his characterisation.

  9. Apparently taking advantage of the drunken Rosaline, whom he pulled out of the Capulet party with questionable consent, Mercutio's conjuring of Romeo by Rosaline's “fine foot, straight leg, and quivering thigh” (2.1.19) was demonstrated on the body of Rosaline herself, while Rosaline moved between participating in the joke and threatening to vomit or pass out.  The next morning Mercutio crawled into the street, hung over, gesturing back to the offstage Rosaline, with whom he had apparently spent the night – something that, given her drunken stupor after the party, felt frighteningly like date rape.  He treated the Nurse equally horrifyingly, pushing his hand violently between her legs and sniffing it, before falling into spasms of disgust at “an old hare hoar” (2.4.132), and finally forcibly kissing her full on the lips despite her anger and resistance, before dismissing her as an “ancient lady” (2.4.141).

  10. Helped by lighting that emphasised the ominous heat of the streets, Benvolio shadow-boxed and Mercutio stood on his hands as they waited for the inevitable confrontation.  Although Benvolio was more reluctant to fight, Mercutio's telling over of Benvolio's past violence, and Benvolio's relaxed play-fighting suggested his readiness for whatever might happen.  Mercutio's demonstration of Tybalt's fancified fighting moves were those of a boxer rather than a swordsman or knife-fighter.  Harry Lobek's chippy, sinister, smirking Tybalt proved a more dangerous opponent, threateningly pulling back his shirt to display his sheathed knife, even before Romeo's appearance.  Once they fell to fighting, Tybalt and Mercutio moved through a realistic and well-choreographed fistfight, before Tybalt – beaten back – drew his knife and, as Romeo tried to restrain Mercutio, slid it into Mercutio's ribs.  As stage blood dripped and pooled convincingly, McCreadie powerfully enacted Mercutio's agony and incredulous horror as he realised that he had been fatally wounded. 

  11. After Romeo determined on his revenge, a terrified Tybalt, horrified by what had just happened, quickly tried to retrieve the knife which had been lying on the floor.  As they fought, the knife changed hands, once ... twice, and then Romeo disarmed Tybalt, and as Benvolio pocketed the knife to prevent bloodshed, Romeo beat a screaming Tybalt to death by slamming his increasingly bloodied head repeatedly against the floor.

  12. Against this background of terrifying domestic and gang violence, the love affair between Violet Ryder's vivacious Juliet and Usher's sensitive Romeo was all the more touching.  In her first scene, Juliet was in her night-time garb: an oversized t-shirt, and retro thick rimmed white spectacles.  As her fashionista mother prepared for the Capulet party, having her nails manicured, and squeezing torturously into a tight scarlet tube dress like a knight arming for battle, Juliet was puzzled and noncommittal at talk of marriage.  Her mother left her an identical dress in virginal white (and presumably contact lenses), and her shy appearance at the Capulet party in these new and unaccustomed clothes represented her first move towards an all too rapid adulthood.  Catching Romeo's eye, they exchanged glances, before he pulled her gently but firmly behind a stage pillar, where they kissed “by th' book” (1.5.109).

  13. Already romantically and sexually curious, this Juliet was innocent but not unknowing.  As she sat on her bed ruminating about her love, she giggled at the phallic significance of “any other part / belonging to a man” (2.2.41-42).  After Romeo's interruption, her control and firmness as she began to plan and organise their betrothal prefigured her strength in later scenes, as she confronted the friar about her prospective marriage to Paris – alternately threatening herself and him with the dagger that she had secreted in her clothing.  At the height of her joy, in 3.2, as she waited for Romeo to come to her conjugal bed, the lights came up on her as she danced triumphantly to throbbing pop-music, a gangle of long adolescent limbs.  After Tybalt's death, when Romeo was finally able to visit her, she sobbed and struck at him, before they clasped one another in a consoling embrace, stripped quickly to underwear and climbed into the bed.

  14. Tybalt's death had ignited the underlying conflict in the increasingly dysfunctional Capulet family.  Lady Capulet's hysterical grief and anger in her cries for vengeance seemed all the more powerful because of her apparent feelings for Tybalt.  Even before she told Juliet of the planned wedding with Paris, her relationship with her daughter had frayed as much as her relationship with her husband.  Bitter and cried out, Lady Capulet seemed jealous and angry at Juliet's continued weeping.  The lack of mutual understanding that they had showed in their first scene together finally overwhelmed them, and despite Lady Capulet's attempt to prevent Capulet's physical attack upon their daughter, and her pitiful final attempt to build bridges with her daughter on the night before her wedding to Paris (sorrowfully asking “Need you my help?” [4.3.6], desperate for an emotional connection), Lady Capulet's lack of sympathy with her daughter's rejection of an attractive and eligible but unwanted suitor (a husband that Lady Capulet herself could only dream of) had destroyed them.

  15. As the tragedy gathered pace, it was again driven on by well chosen pop music.  As Juliet prepared to inject the syringe of potion given her by the friar, Emily Browning's haunting version of “Sweet dreams (are made of this)” (from the soundtrack of Sucker Punch) began to play softly in the background.  It emphasised the twisted relationships of the production (“some of them want to use you / some of them want to get used by you / some of them want to abuse you / some of them want to be abused”) and Juliet's fear of her impending half-death half-sleep was gently mocked by the bitterly cynical chorus (“Sweet dreams / are made of this”) as she lapsed into unconsciousness. 

  16. As the music played on, Lady Capulet and the Prince were shown separately visiting a police station to reclaim evidence bags containing the bloodstained clothing of the murdered Tybalt and Mercutio.  Hard faced and resentful, Lady Capulet briefly faced down the Prince, before returning to her husband's household as it prepared for the wedding.  Still clutching Tybalt's clothes, she interrupted her husband's bustling preparations with an angry and threatening put-down about his infidelities (“Ay, you have been a mouse-hunt in your time; / I will watch you from such watching now” [4.4.11-12]).  Their relationship was effectively broken.

  17. Usher's Romeo was believably boyish and romantic, but his characterisation was disturbed by the initial bed scene with Rosaline.  Despite his enthusiastic participation in the violently masculine male-bonding of the Montague men, Romeo's emotional distance from Mercutio's abusive sexuality seemed to be particularly emphasised in this production.  Where McCreadie's Mercutio saw only male and female flesh, for fighting and fornicating, Romeo passionately engaged with people.  It was hard to fit this characterisation in with Romeo's initial apparent desertion of Rosaline.

  18. The playscript arguably makes it easier for the actor playing Juliet to show her character's growth and development through the play, but Usher's Romeo displayed a sombre gravity in the fast-running final scenes, as events built towards catastrophe.  He killed Paris with the crowbar, identifying his victim with deliberately unseasonable calm even as he was throttling the life out of him.  Faced with Juliet's body in the tomb, he was meditative and sad rather than ragingly sorrowful, and he killed himself with measured emotion.  Like Cawdor in Macbeth, “he died / As one that had been studied in his death, / To throw away the dearest thing he ow'd, / As 'twere a careless trifle” (1.4.8-11).  By contrast, Juliet–waking to find her husband dead in her arms, and hearing the noise of people approaching–was fiercely emotional as she sought for means to end her life.

  19. Inventive and powerfully emotive, this was a very strong fringe production, using a new period setting to add to the impact and contemporary relevance of the play, without losing the essential narrative and atmosphere of Shakespeare's original script.  In particular, this production drew out the physical and emotional violence of the play to great effect – against this background, Romeo and Juliet's sudden passionate love seemed as giddy and dangerous as the brawls in the street.



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© 2012-, Annaliese Connolly and Matthew Steggle (Editors, EMLS).