Romeo and Juliet – constantly renewed

At the beginning of our rehearsal period, we all had the wonderful opportunity to sit and listen to each other speak about our individual relationships to and history with Romeo and Juliet. This play has become one of Shakespeare’s most pervasive in contemporary life and it was an exciting opportunity to discover how each of us had individually, as actors and as theatre goers, enjoyed and experienced it over the years.

Later that night, though, I was thinking about it again, and I realised I couldn’t actually remember the first time I came across Romeo and Juliet, the first time its characters and emotional journey affected me. Yes I remembered it from high school and drama school, but not the specifics of my reaction to it. It’s been in my life that long, it seems! That got me down a little. I felt a little disappointed that I couldn’t recall the initial impact, the first emotional jolt it took me through, the first gentle slap in the face that Romeo and Juliet can be to an audience member.

However, a few weeks later in rehearsals, I had a wonderfully humbling experience that made me realise the magic of Shakespeare’s drama. We were rehearsing one of the scenes with Romeo, Benvolio and Mercutio, in which Tybalt manages to get his blade to slip underneath the arm of Romeo for the death blow that takes Mercutio out. Since my character, Capulet, wasn’t at all present, I had the chance simply to sit and watch my colleagues work. George Banders, one of our Players, had already been bringing such wonderful stuff to Mercutio’s zestful exuberance and this was my chance to see how his Mercutio would leave the world of Verona, cursing the households and stealing the scene once again, as Mercutio is so good at doing. I watched George take Mercutio through the journey. After hearing him drop the ‘Plague on both your houses’ and step tragically towards his own death I realised I was actually in tears. I double checked… yes, I was crying. It was rehearsal room stuff, so no costumes, not even prop daggers at that point, just George in rehearsal clothing, with his incredible focus and respect for Shakespeare’s words, two other actors, a minimal set and a not-quite constructed world in which we were rehearsing. The effect was amazing! Even having seen a number of Mercutios die over the years, in various versions, on stage and on film, and knowing in advance that the character is always set to die, I still felt the full force of what it means to lose that character from the play at that point.

I may not be able to remember the first impact the play had on me as a youngster, but the magic of Shakespeare, the brilliance of his writing and the ageless and massive scope of his dramas means we get the wonderful opportunity to experience these incredible moments over and over again. George’s Mercutio, with all its wit, complexity and colour, is the one that will stay in my mind for a long time from now. Others will come along, in their various forms and interpretations, as there will be Romeos, Hamlets, Lady Macbeths and Pucks throughout my life. But this was just the perfect reminder that Shakespeare’s characters, even at over 400 years of age and a long way from Shakespeare’s London, are, in the hands of passionate actors, alive and well.

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