Guest post by David Roy.
A little after 8pm on May 5th the doors opened and a bell was rung to urge the audience to bring their drinks and conversations out of the foyer and into the theatre. As I entered the Cork Arts Theatre for the first time and attempted to find my allocated seat, I noticed two things: how lovely and quaint the theatre was, and the melancholy figure that was being struck on the stage. The Chorus (Meghan Buckley) sat patiently, on what was to be Juliet’s bed and later her resting place in “Capels’ monument” (5.1.18), silently biding her time. When she delivered the prologue, it was slow and calculated. Her haunting presence, her positioning on Juliet’s bed, the words she spoke and the way she delivered them all worked together to foreshadow the tragic events that we knew would follow.
Founded by the late Father J. C. O’Flynn in 1924, the Cork Shakespearean Company are an amateur company that focus almost exclusively on the works of William Shakespeare. They meet every Thursday night and put on two performances a year – the last being King Lear at the Unitarian Church in Cork in 2015 (see review by Edel Semple). “Initially, classes took place in the presbytery of the North Chapel before moving to the loft of Linehan’s Sweet Factory on John Redmond Street for 75 years” (Irish Examiner, 23 April 2014). The company currently meets at Eason’s Hill Community Centre in Cork City. In 2014, to celebrate their 90th anniversary, the Cork Shakespearean Company organised rehearsed readings of all of Shakespeare’s works, including his poetry, which they performed over a twelve hour period in various venues around Cork City. For this event, there was a particular emphasis on the idea that every word should be recited within that twelve hour window; this is an ethos that is continued in their performance of Romeo and Juliet, in which they remain as true to the text as possible – the one exception being the removal of Friar Laurence from the final scene, as will be discussed below.
Returning to the prologue for a moment, I have always been curious about the assertion that the play is going to be “the two hours’ traffic of our stage” (l.12). Given that the Cork Shakespearean Company’s production ran in at about 160 minutes – which is not all that unusual, with the Globe’s 2009 production (directed by Dominic Dromgoole) coming in at 172 minutes – I have often wondered if the discrepancy between the promised and actual length of the play is down to the speed at which lines are delivered. In an interview that he gave to The Guardian on 21 November 2015, Mark Rylance argues that “Shakespeare intended his plays to be delivered with fast-paced emotion and slowing them down is the same as taking away speed from today’s rap music”. Laying the problems with claiming an understanding of authorial intention aside, it is at least plausible that the speed at which the lines are delivered is slower now than when this work was first performed. There were times in this performance where this seemed to have been the case, but never to the detriment of emotion in the scene. In fact, in the scene where Juliet refuses to marry Paris, it is the slowing of Capulet’s (Nate Jordan) speech that adds to the emotion. During this scene, Capulet’s words were punctuated by acts of violence towards Lady Capulet and Juliet – he slapped Lady Capulet, and then threw Juliet to the ground.
All of the actors performed well, but there were two standout performances: Mercutio (Timothy Barry) and the Nurse (Áine O’Leary). Barry’s Mercutio was less playful than some have imagined him to be in his earlier exchanges with Romeo and Benvolio; even from his first exchanges he seemed to be discontented and impatient. When he ranted on, in 1.4.51-93, about Queen Mab he seemed to become more and more introverted, until Romeo stopped him and chided that “[he] talk’st of nothing” (1.4.94). The novelty of Barry’s Mercutio in this scene was in his detachment from the world around him; he neither addressed his companions on the stage or the audience; he just rambled on to himself. In this performance, Mercutio was about the same age as Romeo, so there was not so much a sense that he is weary of the world; rather, he was portrayed as being introspective and brooding. When the encounter finally occurred between Mercutio and Tybalt, both characters were portrayed as being equally ill tempered and brash. Mercutio’s jest about being found “a grave man” (3.1.93), after he has been stabbed, was spat out sarcastically before he was escorted from the stage to die, repeating the line “[a] plague on both your houses!” (3.1.106). O’Leary’s Nurse, on the other hand, was true to her comic nature. This was nowhere more evident than when she discussed Juliet’s age with Lady Capulet. Similar to Mercutio’s speech about Queen Mab, the Nurse also goes on and on until Lady Capulet interjects: “Enough of this, I pray thee, hold thy peace” (1.3.51). However, the delivery of the lines could not have been more different. Even though the Nurse spoke about the death of her own daughter, she did not drift away like Mercutio; rather, she came across as a chatterbox that would just keep going if she was unchecked. This perception was engendered through her engagement with the audience while she delivered these lines. The result was that she came across as being far more playful and jovial than Mercutio.
As with the text, the play was set in Verona. The company also chose to adopt renaissance style costumes, indicative of the perceived time period during which these events were to unfold. The set was made up of the main stage, an upper stage with stairs on either side leading up to a door, what was to be Juliet’s bed (which was slid underneath the upper stage), and a portable door that was brought out on stage to signify entry into Friar Laurence’s church. The two houses of Capulet and Montague were not identified as much by what they were wearing, as where they were on the stage. Generally, when both houses were on the stage, the Capulets were to the left and the Montagues to the right. The sparseness of the set stripped away all distraction, resulting in a focus on the words being spoken. Thus the beauty of the text was given primacy throughout.
The greatest amendment to the text occurs in the final scene with the exclusion of Friar Laurence (Mike Keep), who doesn’t ever make it down to Capulet’s monument. One of the consequences of this exclusion is that there is no delay between the waking of Juliet and her discovery of Romeo. In this instance, Juliet (Leah Wood) rises from her slumber as Romeo (Paddy O’Leary) kisses her and dies. Her discovery of Romeo is thus instantaneous and the immediacy of loss is more poignant. Another consequence of omitting Friar Laurence from this final scene is that he is not there to explain the intricacies of what has happened to the Prince (Aiden Hegarty); the horror of the scene is left to explain itself. It is thus the horror of the scene that results in the reconciliation of the two houses at the conclusion of the play.
There was one minor hiccup on the night. Following the sudden illness of the actress playing Juliet, Leah Wood was asked to step in as a replacement at the last minute. With such short notice, Ms Wood was unable to learn all of the lines and there were times when she had to read the script. The reading of the text became a little awkward in 3.2.75-9, where the play texts punctuation was lost, nullifying the opposites that are being emphasised. “Beautiful tyrant, fiend angelical, / Dove-feathered raven…” became “Beautiful, tyrant, fiend, angelical, / Dove-feathered, raven…”, thus neutralising Juliet’s inner conflict. Yet, this was the only lapse in what was otherwise a solid performance. Ms Wood even went without the script for the scenes where Juliet first meets Romeo (1. 4) and when Juliet discovers Romeo dead and kills herself (5. 3). The removal of the script for these scenes allowed for more physicality in the interactions between Juliet and the other characters, which is needed when Romeo and Juliet first fall in love, as well as when they consummate that love in death.
Overall, this was a thoroughly enjoyable staging of Romeo and Juliet. The smaller venue created a sense of intimacy throughout. During the fight scenes I almost felt like I was thrust into the fray, and, when the players stepped to the front of the stage to deliver their soliloquies, it felt like I could reach out and touch them. But the real success on the night was the way the Cork Shakespearean Company brought the text to life.