Something was very missing; Romeo & Juliet usually begins with a rather stately and very well- known prologue. ‘In fair Verona where we lay our scene,’ etc but instead we were somewhere more like Peckham, our ears attacked by a shouted gabbling sound as if we were overhearing a tiresome all-night party which has spilled out onto the street at 3am accompanied by the noise of police sirens.
You may visit the theatre to see cutting edge exciting kitchen- sink drama about black life on the streets, but this was a play by Shakespeare written in 1595 containing fine love poetry. What was missing was his WORDS.
I watched the play streamed live from the RSC in Stratford to a cinema near me. There were three of us in the stalls, myself and an elderly couple. We sat far apart which was a good as I tweeted all the way through the second half, barely glancing up at the film. In a whole life time of theatre going that is the first time I’ve done such a thing. People even glancing at their mobiles during a performance once seemed like a hanging offence to me.
But with this grisly production I didn’t want to look or particularly hear anymore.
I’m not complaining about the black casting,( although in this production which was mostly black and Asian and cross gender, it was noticeable that the two unpleasant patriarchs, Montague and Capulet were white men.) Years ago I saw a production at the Royal Court in London, about black life on the streets, the set was a metal cage, all the actors were black and it was brilliant and so were they. I realised that as there are so many talented Afro Caribbean actors that they would have to take leading roles in the future, and our theatre would have to look different. Since then many young black men have gone into the theatre with success.
(They must find a different route to young white actors who mainly seem to be toffs. White working- class boys somehow losing out again.)
But whatever the cast, the play is still the thing and should not be distorted into unintelligibility for some notional and insulting idea of black culture. It seems that turning Shakespeare into something unrecognisable is now de rigour in the mania for ‘inclusivity’ and ‘accessibility’ which now dominates all our cultural outlets.
The Bard has always been accessible, that’s why he’s still so popular, but understanding him, at least until you get into the rhythm of the speech, can be difficult. Like the other arts it just takes a bit of effort, and possibly if you are really keen, some study. The RSC is now trying to encourage this by setting up summer work-shops for children aged four upwards. Strangely on their website almost all the children are white.
But understanding the plays, apart from the difficult language further mangled by the actors, is now made more difficult due to the dogma of producers. During Phyllida Lloyd’s recent all-girl Julius Caesar, the actors were told, ‘Enjoy the process, don’t worry about the end product.’
That has long been the dictate in art schools, but on the stage unfortunately the end product is all the audience sees, no matter how ground-breaking were the rehearsals. The end product is why they paid large sums of money and had a difficult journey on public transport to be there.
Under the banner of inclusivity, clarity of English and any flavour of Shakespeare’s time has been expunged. According to Marxist dictat the sight of an ivy clad Juliet balcony would smack of nostalgia, a regressive disease common to imperialist lackeys of fascism and racism.
The most execrable part of the show to my ears came from chippy Charlotte Josephine who made her name with her solo show Bitch Boxer, about female pugilists in the 2012 Olympics. As Mercutio, she played the same part again.
Mercutio is usually a sexy young swaggerer. Here he was a crop haired girl who seemed to have some neurological condition which made her unable to keep still or moderate her voice below a shriek. Interviewed last year by The Stage, the journalist wrote, ‘She speaks really quickly. Words tumble out of her.’
He called her ‘incredibly kinetic’ I would prefer the older adage; St Vitus’ Dance.
She said that playing Mercutio as a woman made her feel, ‘really current.’ Made her think about the play in new ways and re-examine the language. ‘We’re still not used to thinking about women playing those parts, to seeing such explicit desire for both fighting and fucking explored from a female body.’
The appropriately named, director Erica Whyman, had ‘encouraging her to take up space on stage like the character would, to use the way she moves, even the routes she takes around the stage, to say: ‘This is mine. I own this.’
For me, the problem of turning Mercutio into a girl, is that his is murdered by a man. A man on man sword fight is then turned into something quite different that is not part of the play.
The idea of exploring the way men see the word in contrast to women is of course very interesting and can be hilarious. French & Saunders tried it years ago to great effect, wearing terrible whiskers and fat suits, but this is a play by Shakespeare, and he just wasn’t doing that at all. That wasn’t his world.
Josephine and Whyman are not interested in his world. Their priority is that Josephine once thought the RSC was out of touch. She thought ‘theatre was for posh white people.’
‘Theatre is diverse in a truly human way,’ she told The Stage. ‘All the exclusionary stuff that surrounds it is bollocks. Theatre should be like blokes at a football match,’ accessible to everyone given the cuts to the teaching of arts subjects and the, ‘fucking Tories.’
She doesn’t go in for tradition. The Stage asked if she had any theatrical superstitions or rituals? ‘I get this mad fear,’ she said, ‘that I’ve got a bogey just before we start and have to desperately ask people to check my nostrils.’
Her performance suited the sheer vulgarity of this production. Romeo who looked like a Bollywood celebrity moved like, to quote the critic Dilys Powell, a star-fish, and expressed tender emotion by shouting. Juliet’s Nurse, once a plum part for an older actress, was turned into a hideous old slapper.
I won’t be bothering with the RSC or the Globe theatre anymore. I’m obviously too old and too white to be included or even considered. Although they don’t seem to mess up plays by writers other than Shakespeare quite so badly. Only one thing would get me back; companies making two productions back to back, one traditional, with non- transgendered casting, in Shakespearean costume, verse spoken clearly with understanding. Audiences may then choose what they want; poetry, linguistic and visual felicity, or unmitigated, inchoate rage intersected by non-descript music.
Many young people would enjoy for the former, not just for the joy of dressing up and joining an entirely different world from their own, but as a change from the entrenched Marxist radicalism which pretends to allow in outsiders only to de-skill and underestimate them. That old orthodoxy must surely be ripe for overturning.