Undoubtedly within the Shakespeare canon Romeo and Juliet is one of the most popular to perform, and one of the hardest to get right. It needs vitality, chemistry, and a strange coexistence of superficial lightness with turmoil bubbling below the surface. When the performance is then given a gender swap twist, further complications arise in the play’s execution. They also arise in attempting to write a clear and concise review. To save everyone from becoming muddled – because even when seeing it performed it’s a little confusing to work out – the names will retain their original form, rather than their gender-swapped update. Assume however that Juliet is a Julius, and Romeo a Romola, and so on and so forth.
The major undercutting flaw of R&J was the sheer inconsistency of the gender swap. Was it supposed to be a Romeo and Juliet where the male characters became female, or merely actors playing a role of the opposite gender? The directors evidently didn’t consider the difference, or failed to plan thoroughly. In the opening scene of confrontation, ‘sir’ was changed to ‘miss’ to intriguing effect. However at the Capulet’s house party, only five scenes into act one, the female Lord Capulet was ‘master’ of the house, and Romeo was afraid of Juliet’s female ‘kinsmen’. If there is the intention to situate the play in a matriarchal world, then continuity of gendered terms is necessary; ‘master’ certainly wasn’t appropriate.
In the much the same way, Lord Capulet’s rage was fantastically feminised, and the actor shrieked and hissed in her frustration. Her husband however, in the role of Lady Capulet, was also emasculated, wearing shiny pearl nail-polish and an assortment of gold jewellery. If the play is set in a matriarchal world, it doesn’t make sense to have the father with pearl tips. Matriarchy (in its simplest form) merely moves the female figure into power above the male; it doesn’t alter values or stereotypes. Confusion ensued.
The saving grace of this production was the quality of some of the cast. Benvolio in particular assumed a much more dynamic role than he’s often given, laughing and teasing Romeo as well as being his biggest defender. Mercutio sadly felt a little too cool, and there was no feeling of the best-friend relationship typically portrayed to exist between him and Romeo. Their scenes together lacked any warmth, and so the banter they engaged in felt competitive rather than playful. Perhaps as a result of this, Benvolio’s role seemed much more substantial. Praise should be given to the female Paris, who took the character and breathed new life into a role often portrayed as inconsequential.
Of the lead couple, their individual acting was for the most part convincing, though the scenes of intense romance or agony weren’t imbued with enough energy, and tended to fall a little flat on the ears of the audience. There was conviction lacking in the couple’s speeches, a feature which wasn’t persuasive of a love-at-first-sight scenario.
R&J was a play that felt rushed into a new adaptation far too hastily. The play needed more thought as to how it was going to present a gender swap, and from there how it was to be acted. What was supposed to elevate the play into a new space, only got the characters and the audience into a state of confusion. Furthermore, a gender swap is thought-provoking, but no substitute for genuinely engaging theatre. Ultimately R&J suffered at the hands of its own complexity. The directors became so tied up in making the play different, they forgot to satisfy the simplest criteria of creating an exciting and moving performance.