Two productions of the same play in Theatre Royals in the North of England, yet very different experiences.
In the past month, I have had chance to revisit the RSC’s production of Romeo and Juliet in Newcastle and have seen the Pilot Theatre’s production of the same play in York. Having seen both productions so close together, I wanted to think about them at the same time.
The biggest difference between the two productions is clearly that the creative team working on the RSC production have had the opportunity really fine tune it, as the production has already been running for six months. The work that has gone into the production shows in its transfer to Newcastle. In addition, the RSC production has benefited from the actors working together for some time as part of the RSC’s long ensemble, which has an impact on how they relate and respond to each other. In contrast the York production is an example of a fresh approach to the text, with some raw edges, from a company who have met recently just for this production.
The RSC production started its life on the Courtyard Theatre thrust stage. When I saw it for the first time, I felt it was the best thing coming out of the RSC long ensemble (first seen 17th May). In moving to Newcastle, the production has had to transfer from the thrust stage to a proscenium arch stage, and there were many things that had changed in Newcastle in order to take the space into account. In many ways it is the creation of the distance from the audience which has also strengthened this particular production. Indeed, the new space highlights the aesthetic more than the space in Stratford did. For example, one of things that makes this production so engaging is the way it references film and other media, such as the fight in the opening scene and the masked ball. Both scenes use slow motion to great effect, and are more effective being played in the stage frame. Other features which work well on the Newcastle stage is the reflection of the rose window on the stage when the audience enters the auditorium and it is very clear in the dark cube of the stage area. Seen from the front across a smaller stage, the chapel within the inner stage is stunning . There are some additions in Newcastle, one of the nicest is Jonjo O’Neill taking advantage of the proscenium arch stage to play to the whole audience and serenade them with a few snatches of Chris de Burgh. His Mercutio is just as impressive in Newcastle, as it was in Stratford, and I think it is the best performance in the role that I have ever seen. In moving the fights up stage, and from the raised platform centre stage, there is a greater emphasis on Mercutio’s surprising and shocking death. Sam Troughton’s Romeo is laddish and a very exciting portrayal. In the balcony scene, he hides amongst the audience as he observes Juliet enter her balcony. In this case the whole audience become trees which is a little amusing. However, this is one thing that was lost for me in the transfer and it was some of the intimacy with the actors that the thrust stage brought. For example, in the Courtyard Theatre, Sam Troughton speaks his lines in the balcony scene from the front of stalls and when I saw it, he actually sat next to me at this point in the play. Having to climb up steps and go onto the stage takes away that moment he has to be close to the audience.
In contrast, the Pilot version made use of flowers on the stage which were shaped into heart at the start of the play. It was in modern dress production, which made it feel very current for the young audience that was in the night I saw it, who cheered and applauded with delight at the end. I liked the use of the neon window and the way it became the cross and chapel towards the end of the play. However, the combination of dress from different historical periods used in the RSC production is very powerful and illustrates the gulf between the generations, but also that sense of the play itself travelling through time and constantly being replayed worked very well for me, especially seeing it again in a different theatre (I discuss this more in my original blog).
The strap line for the Pilot Theatre promotion is ‘Kiss by the book’. I think that the way this line is delivered was one of the things that really illustrated how far the RSC version has benefited from the long ensemble approach. Mariah Gale makes so much more of the line, giving it a real poignancy and establishing the personalities of her Juliet and Sam Troughton’s Romeo that play through the rest of the action. Indeed, Mariah Gale’s performance is a fantastic performance which is getting even better with time.