Audiences feel they almost own a part of Romeo and Juliet. They may expect scenes to played a certain way and feel short-changed if they’re not. Should a director be influenced by such preconceptions? They can tempt directors to give audiences what they want, playing famous scenes in the celebrated but clichéd way; or to react against that and do something radical. But the first option is bland and the second can be gratuitous and annoying. Received wisdom tells you to ignore audience preconceptions. Once you enter a rehearsal, it’s just you and the text.
Reassuringly, this week’s R&J promises to “strip down the play in order to re-examine it.” Most of balcony scene achieves the near-impossible by feeling genuinely fresh. Sadly, this makes it all the more galling that the end of the scene is accompanied by gushingly romantic harp music, an unnecessary submission to orthodox and clichéd expectations of the play.
But elsewhere, imaginative direction makes up for it, most notably a kiss between Tybalt and Lady Capulet. It comes out of nowhere but its repercussions are powerful. Capulet ordering Tybalt not to fight with Romeo is now about more than keeping peace with the Montagues: it’s an alpha-male struggle. Capulet may suspect the affair, and be trying to put Tybalt back in his place. This gives Tybalt, otherwise a two-dimensional character, a clearer motivation for the anger which leads to Mercutio’s murder. Most of all it informs Bea Walker’s Lady Capulet. Her grief at Tybalt’s death is magnified, and her scenes with Juliet are haunted by the suspicion that she knows exactly what it is like to be unhappily married.
There’s a vague, misguided sense amongst many critics and directors that you can find anything you want to find in Shakespeare. All English students have encountered lunatic interpretations and radical productions don’t work if they only aim to be radical. The Tybalt / Lady Capulet kiss works because it doesn’t contradict the text, it highlights what is already there. This production of R&J isn’t faultless but you will hear something in lines you know well that you’ve never noticed before. That’s the hardest thing with Shakespeare but it’s what every director should be striving for. You can’t do it by “reinterpreting” (read “misinterpreting”) the text with willful abandon. You can only work out what the text means for you and think imaginatively about how to convey that to an audience.