7) Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare
Apart from catching a few minutes of the Leonardo DiCaprio/Claire Danes version, I don’t think I’ve seen or read Romeo and Juliet since Cambridge days. So I come to it now with a certain nostalgia, but also having gone through the previous nine plays. So a couple of things strike me now in a way that was lost on my ten-year-old self.
First, this is the first play with a proper framing narrative from the Chorus – The Taming of the Shrew has the incomplete and unsatisfactory Christopher Sly bit, and the others as far as I remember we take directly. The fact that we are told right up front what is going to happen doesn’t detract from the drama; if anything, it makes it easier to swallow the rather compressed timeline of the narrative; we can’t say we haven’t been warned.
Second, this is the first time Shakespeare has built a play around a really convincing love story between sympathetic characters. The Tamora / Aaron relationship in Titus Andronicus comes close, but both are decidedly villains; the four-way frolicking in Love’s Labour’s Lost is not, and though Antipholus of Syracuse and Adriana are sweet they are not the central plot dynamic in Comedy of Errors. Indeed, the realism of Romeo and Juliet is an extraordinary leap forward from Love’s Labour’s Lost.
Apart from that, the play retains its magic for me. The lines are great, the plot is remorseless, the deaths poignant (and much less cartoonish than Titus Andronicus), and the moral timeless.
Arkangel, given such good starting material, have pulled off an excellent production. The two leads are good – Romeo is Joseph Fiennes (who was Shakespeare himself in Shakespeare in Love) and Juliet is Maria Miles (Elfine in Cold Comfort Farm). But both are somewhat overshadowed by three excellent supporting performances: Clive Swift (who has been in Doctor Who three times over the years) doubling up as both Friar Laurence and the Chorus; Elizabeth Spriggs (who was, among other things, one of the cannibalistic old ladies in Paradise Towers) as Juliet’s Nurse…
…and best of all, in the role in which I trod the boards of Rathmore Grammar School’s assembly hall in 1979, Mercutio is played, in his native Scottish accent, by David Tennant. This is the third role (and sixth play) of the series that I’ve heard Tennant in; it’s the first time he has played a character who is not especially nice (Antipholus of Syracuse and Henry VI are both good guys) and he does it very well. Is it coincidence that he plays the good guys – Antipholus, Henry and indeed the Doctor – in an English accent?
The music is generally excellent too, apart from a couple of OTT dramatic chords in the first scene.
Henry VI, Part I | Henry VI, Part II | Henry VI, Part III | Richard III | Comedy of Errors | Titus Andronicus | Taming of the Shrew | Two Gentlemen of Verona | Love’s Labour’s Lost | Romeo and Juliet | Richard II | A Midsummer Night’s Dream | King John | The Merchant of Venice | Henry IV, Part I | Henry IV, Part II | Henry V | Julius Caesar | Much Ado About Nothing | As You Like It | Merry Wives of Windsor | Hamlet | Twelfth Night | Troilus and Cressida | All’s Well That Ends Well | Measure for Measure | Othello | King Lear | Macbeth | Antony and Cleopatra | Coriolanus | Timon of Athens | Pericles | Cymbeline | The Winter’s Tale | The Tempest | Henry VIII | The Two Noble Kinsmen | Edward III | Sir Thomas More (fragment)