Lord, this bitter earth,
Yes, can be so cold.
Today you’re young,
Too soon, you’re old.
As a self-confessed Luhrmann-ophobe, when hearing the many comparisons between the 1996 screen adaptation and the production kicking off the Globe Theatre’s ‘Summer of Love’ (and even some claims that the latter made the former seem subtle), I was gritting my teeth, biting my thumb, and preparing myself for bitter hatred. At best: disappointment. Particularly as the source material – of all of Shakespeare’s works – is the one I’ve always had trouble meshing with. It’s Shakespeare, so it’s bloody great, but I’ve never thought it was as bloody great as some of his others. Romeo and Juliet are whiny – unsympathetic – and it doesn’t have the beauty of Hamlet, the comedy of Much Ado or the gore of Titus.
But I booked for the Globe’s Romeo and Juliet nonetheless, ready to feed offended, but discovered a beautiful piece of work. And I feel stupid for my prejudice.
It’s flashy (literally, with strobe lighting effects that would have packed a greater punch had I seen an evening performance) and it’s coarse but it’s eloquent and it’s moving. This Verona is party-land, clown-faced and almost surreal. Less the lute playing and more the bass drop, paired with ‘drop that shit’, and a burst of red streamers whilst nipple-tassels are swung and scantily clad dancers bop around like cheerleaders. That’s one way to start Shakespeare – and what a way. It sounds ludicrous and lewd, and it is, but – God – does it work! It’s GREAT fun.
The soundtrack takes an idea that I have seen done wrong so many times – pop music. With lyrics. Before, I would shudder to hear such a thing. But this production does it so well. The use of Dinah Washington’s ‘This Bitter Earth’ is tear-jerking. It evokes the strange sentimental quality of love at first sight: the small idea, at the back of your head, that the person you’ve just seen could be incredible, and – in the case of Juliet particularly – could save you. Choreography plays to the physicality of the actors. As the party continues in slow motion, Edward Hogg’s Romeo and Kirsty Bushell’s Juliet step out of the action, looking to each other. It’s played beautifully simply, without pathos or high drama, but with an unmistakable realism within this obscure world. This is the first Romeo and Juliet I’ve seen that portrays a true romance in all it’s beauty and heartbreak.
This is down to the chemistry of these lead actors – both fantastic. They touch tentatively, afraid as new lovers, and it’s sweet and pure. As they make love on a barren bed before Romeo is banished, a lump forms in one’s throat.
Edward Hogg is a delightful Shakespearean actor – drawing the poetry from the words until the language takes wing – his Romeo is cocky, sexy, charming, angry; yet, he is unbearably vulnerable at times. The sheer humanity of Hogg’s performance – and the agony of it – will stick with me for some time. And Bushell is a real Juliet, knotty and silly but full of empathy and feeling. And the two, despite their failings, are brave. The final scene on the deathbed is tragic. I have never seen Shakespearean deaths I have found so affecting. You wanted to leap on stage and stop the inevitable from occurring: to let them kiss, and love, and live. Hogg and Bushell were in their element. It was incredible.
A further performance I have to mention is London’s pigeons which, far from being a nuisance, surprisingly added a further dimension to the performance – with the improvisation of Bushell. During the balcony scene, a pigeon which had flown on to the stage to nick a few stray Doritos was spotted by Juliet and – like a delighted schoolgirl – she gasped and pointed it out to Romeo, aww-ing and coo-ing at the bird. Then, on the line ‘Parting is such sweet sorrow’, the pigeon flew away (to which Hogg remarked when he improvised ‘he knows his cues’ when the audience laughed). Already, these pigeons were becoming synonymous with Romeo himself – cloaked in black, white and grey. Most movingly, after Romeo’s banishment, two of the pigeons flew from the stage over Juliet’s head, and she watched them go dreamily, happily, as if wanting to fly away with them. It was a stunning moment – and utterly unpredictable.
This production was, for me, quite incredible. Yes, it was gaudy. Yes, it was provocative. But, was I moved? Did I indulge in the language? Was I engaged? Yes. Yes. Yes. And, what’s more, I found a new appreciation for a play I had never before appreciated.
During the play, I couldn’t help but think of the title of this season ‘Summer of Love’ which, upon first hearing it, seemed cliché.
But this was love.
A play about love, the purity of it, the mess of it. Romeo and Juliet before had seemed trivial – two kids who didn’t understand – but this Romeo and Juliet was a lovesong for people who couldn’t live without each other.