Daniel Kramer’s production of Romeo and Juliet for The Globe’s ‘Summer of Love’ season opens with a powerful visual image: two women in labour, wheeled onto the stage on gurneys, bring forth from their fatal loins a pair of tiny child-sized coffins, covered in roses. The visual lexicon of the Mexican Day of the Dead is picked up later the production, with Romeo and Juliet each wearing Mexican death masks when they meet at the Capulet ball. This is one good idea; and Kramer shamelessly plunders a couple more bright thoughts from Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996), particularly in his ball scene. But, where Luhrmann found tenderness and integrity in youthful idealism struggling inside violent mob culture, Kramer just finds violent mob culture, then makes it shout a lot in an attempt to seem passionate. This is not the same. Kramer’s vision of Romeo and Juliet, like his doubtful Tristan und Isolde in 2016, is more vague associative muddle than pioneering synthesis: a lazy, sloppy, incoherent Romeo and Juliet for the ADHD generation. It’s thoroughly disappointing, entirely unmoving, and at times actual agony to witness.
The fundamental problem with this production is its insincere treatment of the tragedy; everything is brash and coarse, overacting is rife, and delivery is loud, aggressive and often faux hip-hop: the effect is patronising and alienating, not accessible as presumably intended, provoking many entirely misplaced laughs from a giggly tourist audience. We feel no pity; we see no horror; there is no tragedy. Whenever anyone doesn’t seem to understand their lines, Kramer resorts to meaningless erotic bouncing to distract us: this becomes exhaustingly tedious quite quickly, but (beware!) this production takes three hours to stop. You feel every minute.
Although the programme lauds the fetishisation of violence, the fight choreography wouldn’t convince a tranquilised toddler, as Tybalt points a gun and says “Bang!” at Mercutio. For a Tarantino generation, brought up on highly aestheticized, glamourised violence, people gurning a bit and waving foam baseball bats at each other doesn’t cut it, no matter how many scantily-clad dancers or thumping dance rhythms you add (and if only it could be rhythms, plural – each fight scene gets the very same music, making them even duller). I’ve seen far more exciting depictions of violence on the Globe stage in former, traditional productions of Coriolanus and The Winter’s Tale – both with enough fake blood, severed limbs and retching to please even the great Quentin himself. Kramer’s fight scenes felt more like TV danceoffs: all posture and swagger, and no real menace. I wouldn’t mind this, if I felt Kramer were saying something new about the play; but he isn’t. There’s not enough intellectual heat here to forge new truths.
Visually, warheads hang overhead (Banksy? yawn), everyone wears black (yawn), and is daubed in facepaint located somewhere between clown makeup, A Clockwork Orange and The Hunger Games: the Prince is a Big Brother voiceover; all derivative clichés. You can’t tell the difference between Montagues and Capulets unless you know the play really well; and, if you do know it well, you can play the confetti game. Kramer (possibly assisted by Giles Block, Globe Associate for Text?) has decided to reapportion lines to some characters, and splice other scenes together: in other words, Shakespeare’s script is now confetti, and you can have fun piecing it back together as it falls onto the stage. So, Romeo gets the Prince’s final condemnatory speech at the end, which he declaims while executing all the parents, but before he dies. The wedding is spliced into the fight with Tybalt, in an obvious cop-out pastiche of the great Godfather scenes which intercut Mafia executions with Catholic religious ceremonies; but there, Francis Ford Coppola understood and respected both the traditions he contrasted. Kramer doesn’t seem able to tick either box effectively, and the result is that the wedding drizzles away into insignificance, rather than being made more poignant (presumably poignancy was Kramer’s intention), as the fight takes over and Mercutio, with the merest smear of sentimentality, unceremoniously dies. Tybalt’s death is spliced into Juliet’s waiting soliloquy; again, a cop-out pastiche, this time of the relationship between death and orgasm (again, yawn), but Kramer doesn’t stage it in a physically interesting way – the two scenes collide without contributing anything to each other, or to our understanding. The confetti trick wouldn’t be so bad if it added anything in terms of tension, or illuminated anything in terms of theme; but it doesn’t. It merely mauls and maims Shakespeare’s flow of ideas. It’s also a very old, hackneyed idea – Zeffirelli did it in his seminal 1976 film, and it didn’t work then. It doesn’t work for Kramer either. In amongst all this, it’s worth remembering that Shakespeare produced a taut, fascinating and moving tragedy, structured carefully to poise, and delay, a mounting body count until the final tragedy falls, not on the dead children, but on the parents who have to live with their loss: a loss Shakespeare himself knew. But all this seems lost on Kramer, and it’s entirely lost to us as an audience, thanks to his misjudged meddling. We get plenty of banal death, no climax, no resolution, and the absence of hope isn’t even portrayed in an interesting way. It is, indeed, full of sound and fury – signifying nothing.
A very few actors salvage reasonable performances from Kramer’s car crash: Blythe Duff is a genuinely believable and affecting Nurse; Golda Rosheuvel makes a nice Mercutio, with beautiful diction and a fine Queen Mab speech, though Kramer makes much of her being female, when actually it would be nice to simply credit Rosheuvel with her clear acting talent, and leave her gender out of it. Kirsty Bushell’s Juliet is appealingly vulnerable in the main, with some nice gawky adolescent detailing, though shrill at times, and not possibly 14 in the kindest of imaginations. Biggest disasters are the Capulets: Martina Laird just plain irritating as an exceptionally gross, incoherent Lady Capulet, Gareth Snook permanently shouting and unpleasant as Lord Capulet, with the result that we care for neither of them (and mainly just want them off stage fast). The less said about the rest of the cast, the better; and we can’t blame them for being ordered to run round the stage continuously like hysterical children at the end of a long tea-party: that’s Kramer’s doing.
The recent spats at the Globe, between the now outgoing Artistic Director Emma Rice and The Powers That Be in the background, have become uncomfortably public of late; they now seem to have spilled right onto the Globe stage. The question of sound effects, and sound equipment, was a bone of contention: the result is that Romeo and Juliet barely gets through 15 microphoned lines at a time without throbbing universal synths, yearning solo nondescript wailing, or one-size-fits-all dance music blasting (everything blasts, all the time) through the accursed /much-maligned (choose your corner) speakers. Indeed, at the Capulet ball, the entire company go into a fully choreographed, amplified version of YMCA, sung in full by Lord Capulet in an agonising case of dad-karaoke. The stage reverberates, literally, with an anger which has nothing to do with this play, and perhaps everything to do with bruised egos behind the scenes.
In short, dear reader, you would do better to spend 3 hours peacefully reading the play yourself at home, or re-watch the culturally resilient, enchantingly well-imagined Baz Luhrmann film version, than sit through this mess.