Got dragged to what I was sure would be a mediocre production of Romeo and Juliet yesterday.
I was surprised. It wasn't mediocre.
It was bad.
Not going to review it here, since it was essentially a community theater production, although a community theater with a healthy budget and a wonderful and well-equipped performing space. If only the actors had matched the professional quality of the lighting.
But the play's flopping wasn't the actors' faults. They can't be blamed for having been cast in roles they weren't up to playing or weren't at all suited for. And I don't want to pick on the director, too much. I just want to offer some advice, as a fan of Shakespeare and live theater and friend to community theater and college and high school drama departments, to any amateur companies considering doing Romeo and Juliet or any Shakespeare, for that matter.
One. Don't do Romeo and Juliet. You may think that it's an easier play for your group to handle than Hamlet, Othello, or King Lear, but the odds that you are going to be able to cast two actors good looking enough, talented enough, and young enough to play the leads are very small, less than the odds that you will find one good older actor strong enough to carry Hamlet or Lear. Romeo and Juliet are actually harder parts than Kate and Petrucchio, Beatrice and Benedick, and Rosalind and Orlando. For one thing, they have the almost unplayable habit of speaking in rhymed couplets. For another, they are both stupid and stupid in ways that cannot be excused on the grounds that they are young or carried away by their love for each other. They are stupid because they are prisoners of the plot to a degree only characters in farces and melodramas can get away with being. They never do the smart or well-considered thing because if they made one sensible decision the play would end right there. To get the audience past this, you need a pair of lovers who are beautiful enough, sexy enough, and intelligent enough to make us see the real people these cardboard cutouts are cartoons of. In short, it's pretty much necessary for the production to cheat and trick us into mistaking the actors for the characters and get us rooting for them to get together instead of Romeo and Juliet.
On top of this, the actors have to be talented enough to handle the verse and make us both feel the beauty of the poetry and accept it as stuff people would actually say---in this way, Romeo and Juliet is like a musical comedy. We are willing to believe that a pair of young lovers might break out in song in order to express the depth of their feelings for each other, but only if they can actually sing.
Two. You have other casting problems. Romeo and Juliet includes two of the most annoying characters Shakespeare ever wrote. They are especially annoying because we're expected to like them and find them funny. The Nurse and Mercutio. They both just won't shut up. The Nurse goes on and on blabbing and blubbering her banal folk wisdoms and pointless stories and unintentional dirty jokes and Mercutio, the most pornographically-minded young man in Verona, only makes sense when he is being crass, vulgar, and mean, and when he's dying. All the rest of the time he's spouting absolute nonsense. The only reason to like either character is that they are positioned within the conventions of the play's very conventional plot where likable characters are supposed to go.
And the chances are that whoever you cast as the Nurse, she (or he---there's an old tradition of having the Nurse played by a man) is going to take it as a ticket to overact. And the poor actor who has to play Mercutio is going to overact out of sheer desperation as he tries to make charming a character who is anything but and give sense to speeches that are in fact intentionally senseless---Elizabethan audiences apparently would have thought Mercutio was very clever in the way he deliberately confused his listeners with nonsense, the way we enjoy watching Groucho Marx run verbal circles around Margaret Dumont and whatever pompous male characters get in his way. Groucho might be a model you should hand your actor too. Mercutio is not a charming and roguish young man kidding around with his pals and teasing poor dumb Romeo for getting all soppy about girls. He's an anarchist and a cynic. The key to the character is in his last speech in which he curses both the Montagues and the Capulets, although he appears to be related to both and his death looks to be a result of his own loyalty to the son of one of those houses he wishes a plague upon. Mercutio is never serious, until the very end, because there is nothing in his Verona that deserves to be taken seriously. Mercutio is the one character in the play who recognizes that they are all trapped within a play. I'm not going all meta- here. Mercutio doesn't know he's a character. He simply recognizes the habit human beings have of surrendering themselves to society's conventions and limiting themselves as if they are characters in a play. When we meet him he is disgusted with Romeo's love for...Rosaline, the girl Romeo dumps as soon as he sets eyes on Juliet.
Romeo and Rosaline are engaging in a very conventional love affair, playing out roles that have been written for them by the pop culture of their time, ballads and prose romances that always featured a heartbroken young man sighing away his life for an aloof and fickle mistress. At the start of the play, Romeo is more in love with playing the role of unrequited lover than he is in love with Rosaline, whom we never meet because we don't have to. She isn't important to Romeo as a person in her own right, only as an excuse for him to play his part. Mercutio recognizes this and shows an understandable degree of contempt for it. His dirty jokes are subversive not pornographic. He is trying to remind Romeo that he is a human being who can, if he wants to, think for himself. If you let your actor play lines like the prick of noon bit as only jokes you've hurt your own production. The audience should not laugh as much as smile knowingly.
And Romeo isn't Mercutio's only target. He sees through his other friend Benvolio too as a confused dope trying to live out several conventional roles at once (it's legitimate and more usual to play this scene as though Mercutio's projecting his own flaws on poor, slow-witted, well-meaning Benvolio, but the first time we meet Benvolio he's enthusiastically joining in the fight he keeps saying he's trying to stop), and he's absolutely infuriated by Tybalt who apparently makes no move in life without consulting a manual on how to be a swaggering bully.
Mercutio's tragedy is that he lets himself get caught up in the conventions he's been trying to subvert. He dies as a pawn in the very conventional Montague-Capulet fued, but he also dies as a simple plot device. He's killed merely in order for Romeo to lose his temper and kill Tybalt in revenge, thus moving the plot along towards its unhappy ending.
The job for the actor then is not to make Mercutio's nonsense sound sensible or make his bad jokes funny or to make Mercutio charming despite his nonsense and bad jokes. It's to convey Mercutio's underlying anger. Mercutio can be made charming but because he doesn't mean any of the words he says, which is not to say he's just fooling around. He means something every time he opens his mouth. He just doesn't bother to put it into meaningful words because he doesn't expect anyone else to get his underlying point. (There's a scene, shortly after the balcony scene, where Romeo suddenly does seem to be getting it and Mercutio is delighted!) Mercutio might as well be talking to himself, which gives him something in common with another character who sees himself and everybody around him as trapped within a play. Hamlet. And that should tell you who should be cast in the role---the actor you would cast as Hamlet. This is what most professional repertory companies do. Which means if you don't have a Hamlet in your company, you don't have a Mercutio, which is not quite as big a problem as not having a Romeo or a Juliet, but it's going to make for a very big hole in your production.
By the way, your Tybalt needs to be big, tall, scary, and the best stage fighter in your company. Having a small, skinny guy standing around scowling isn't going to cut it, no matter how good an actor he is. Tybalt is the violence boiling beneath the feud and the play itself. The audience has to recognize him as a danger and a threat to everything and everybody as soon as he appears and to feel that threat every moment he's on stage. This is one part where you can cast solely for physical type. Tybalt doesn't have that many lines. Go out and find a football player with a deep voice and you're golden.
Three. Boys, and men, in tights.
I'm not a fan of high-concept for high-concept's sake productions of Shakespeare, but I'm not against them on principle. Some work. Some don't. I am, however, convinced that there are almost no good reasons for doing any of Shakespeare's plays, in period, except for the histories and, maybe, Macbeth---but no kilts---for the simple reason that mostly what we know of how people back whenever dressed is what was fashionable enough to make it into the paintings and woodcuts, and this is true of almost every period of history: what was fashionable is to our eyes often ridiculous. It's especially true of early Renaissance, Tudor, and Elizabethan fashions. You may marvel out how your designer's authentic 16th Century costumes make the publicity stills look like paintings by Raphael, but what the audience is going to see onstage are a bunch of women who look like exploded sofas and a bunch of men and boys with skinny legs looking and feeling silly.
Wearing a costume is a skill, anyway. Asking amateurs who are struggling to learn how to deliver speeches in verse to also learn how to wear a doublet and hose is unfair. Guys in white tights and short pleated skirts aren't going to look like Medicis. They are going to look like guys in white tights and short pleated skirts and they will move around the stage accordingly. Better to send them out there in baggy jeans and hoodies. Juliet, too. At least they'll feel human and that's the point, which gets back to something I said up there in Part One.
The key part of your job as director is to make your audience see the real human beings those two blockheads on stage are standing in for. Making your actors look like illustrations for a Victorian edition of Tales From Shakespeare emphasizes their existence as artifacts.
In the wonderful Canadian TV series, Slings and Arrows, the backstage comedy set at a Shakespeare Festival very much like Stratford's, the hero's artistic nemesis is a pompous fraud named Darren Nichols whose first instinct with any show he directs is to turn it into a commentary on his own brilliance. His favorite tropes are flames and live horses onstage---a combination that has led to injuries among his casts in the past. In the second season, while our hero, Geoffrey Tennant, is directing Macbeth, Darren is staging Romeo and Juliet as another exercise in selling the audience on the genius of Darren Nichols. To that end he has decided to completely deny the idea that there is anything remotely human in the play. He scolds his leads for playing their love scenes with emotion. "Romeo and Juliet are not real people," he shouts. "They are signifiers!" His conception results in costumes that are literally cages and, as if that isn't enough to tell you how these people are trapped by their roles in society, he has all of them wearing hats shaped like chess pieces!
Dress your Romeo and Juliet in yards and yards of curtain stuff and upholstery and you might as well make them wear cages and chess piece hats. You are emphasizing them as stage conventions!
In short, then. Before you get started, rein in every impulse you have to make the play look museum wall pretty. Reject any design or staging idea that takes the emphasis off Romeo and Juliet as real people in love. Then, take a long, honest look at your talent pool. If you don't have a pretty solid sense of who will be your Romeo and Juliet, who you're going to cast as Mercutio and the Nurse, admit it right off: You can't do the play. And if you're only pretty sure those four can handle their parts or if you are thinking you've got enough talent floating around that you'll find actors who can during try-outs, you know what? The odds are you can't do the play. But you probably can do Midsummer Night's Dream or Taming of the Shrew or Comedy of Errors or even---be careful, though, because it's not as funny as you might remember---Twelfth Night.
Break a leg.
Epilogue: There's a late tradition developing that Meructio is gay. This, says the tradition, explains his hostility to Romeo's love affairs and his penchant for ugly dirty jokes. He's jealous of Romeo, of the kind of open and approved romance that Romeo is allowed to have, and of heterosexual sex from which he is excluded. Mercutio is an outsider who resents it then. It would also explain his love of talking nonsense. It's a deflection. He uses it to keep people from taking the kind of serious look at him that would reveal his true nature to them. He can use it to keep himself from having to admit to his real feelings or deal with them.
A.D. Nuttall, in my new second favorite book on Shakespeare, Shakespeare the Thinker, pretty much takes it as a given of the text that Mercutio is gay. I can see this, but I'm not sure how much it's worth to any actual production of the play. It might give the actor playing Meructio some subtext to work with and result in a couple of interesting moments for him to play. But as the key to his character I think it diminishes him. It turns him into a rather conventional stage closet case and instead of his being an anarchist and a rebel on principle, he's simply acting the part out of spite.
He can be both gay and a natural rebel, his homosexuality freeing him from the sort of conventional roles in society his friends and family and enemies let themselves be defined by. Because he has to stand a little bit off to the side, he can see things that they can't. I don't know how you'd act this, though. But gay or straight, Mercutio's is the rebel intelligence on stage. He's the one who lets us know that things don't have to be this way, that the tragedy isn't inevitable, which is of course why anything's a tragedy---up until a certain moment the worst is avoidable. Mercutio is the character who stands the best chance of escaping and that's why it's tragic when he's the first character to be destroyed by the conventions.
There's no sexuality, gay or straight, in his final lines. There's only the disbelieving anger of a proud man who realizes he has made the one big mistake he's been warning every one else not to make:
Ay, ay, a scratch, a scratch; marry, 'tis enough...
'tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a
church-door; but 'tis enough,'twill serve: ask for
me to-morrow, and you shall find me a grave man. I
am peppered, I warrant, for this world. A plague o'
both your houses! 'Zounds, a dog, a rat, a mouse, a
cat, to scratch a man to death! a braggart, a
rogue, a villain, that fights by the book of
Help me into some house, Benvolio,
Or I shall faint. A plague o' both your houses!
They have made worms' meat of me: I have it,
And soundly too: your houses!
Production note: The scene in Slings and Arrows in which Geoffrey tricks Darren Nichols into throwing out his high-concept is very funny, but what's even better are the glimpses of the Romeo and Juliet Darren finally does stage. It's definitely low-concept, minimalist---the characters are dressed romantically but in no particular period's fashions---full of heart and very, very human. The balcony scene is pure joy. I have never seen a Romeo and Juliet who were so happy with each other.