Bury Theatre Royal’s Romeo and Juliet brings timeless Italy to the stage

Rehearsals for Romeo and Juliet at Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds

Rehearsals for Romeo and Juliet at Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds - Credit: Archant

Romeo and Juliet is Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy. It’s also a play which still appeals best to young audiences, with its strong romantic themes and the youthful nature of the cast.

Portrait of Lynn Whitehead at the Romeo and Juliet rehearsals in the Guildhall, Bury St Edmunds.

Portrait of Lynn Whitehead at the Romeo and Juliet rehearsals in the Guildhall, Bury St Edmunds. - Credit: Archant

It also reflects the darker side of youth culture, with its gangs and testosterone-fuelled fight scenes. It’s not surprising that Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein chose Shakespeare’s greatest love story as the basis for their musical West Side Story. Romeo and Juliet is a play where emotions run high – the yearning is heart-felt and the anger is righteous. It is this world of heightened emotions that Bury Theatre Royal director Lynn Whitehead is looking to preserve in her production of Romeo and Juliet, which opens next week.

Portrait of Lynn Whitehead with actors at the Romeo and Juliet rehearsals in the Guildhall, Bury St

Portrait of Lynn Whitehead with actors at the Romeo and Juliet rehearsals in the Guildhall, Bury St Edmunds. - Credit: Archant

She is thrilled that the budget has been able to stump up a cast of nine professional actors, which has been augmented by members of the theatre’s young company, associate artists and some professional musicians.

As rehearsals continue for this February’s production of Romeo & Juliet, the Theatre Royal is excite

As rehearsals continue for this Februarys production of Romeo & Juliet, the Theatre Royal is excited to have the chance to showcase some of Bury St Edmunds up-and-coming musical talent, as a small group of young local musicians gear up to join the professional cast onstage. Rehearsals are at the Guildhall in bury. - Credit: Archant

“We wanted a show where there wasn’t a lot of hat-swapping; that one actor, by and large, plays one character all the way through, so people aren’t going: ‘Who’s he playing now?’ There is some doubling up but that is done off stage and it is very clear that this is a different character.”

Actors at the Romeo and Juliet rehearsals in the Guildhall, Bury St Edmunds. Pictured is Sian Polhil

Actors at the Romeo and Juliet rehearsals in the Guildhall, Bury St Edmunds. Pictured is Sian Polhill-Thomas. - Credit: Archant

She says that having a young cast means that the play has a lot of energy and bravado – a sense of swagger which should transmit itself over the footlights and engage with the audience.

Romeo and Juliet at Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds

Romeo and Juliet at Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds - Credit: Archant

“With a play like Romeo and Juliet, if you want music and dancing, fighting in the street and crowds, you can’t get that out of nine actors. To do everything we wanted to do we would need a budget for 23 actors, so wearing my community theatre hat, sought to recruit young musicians. Music in Suffolk is extraordinary, so to find talented musicians was not difficult and we brought along some of the theatre’s company of young actors to give them some on-stage experience, alongside real actors who have been trained and are just a bit older than they are.

“We are so lucky because to have a professional cast of nine is a real luxury these days.”

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Lynn said is thrilled to have the community playing such an important role in the showcase production of the spring season. She is a passionate believer that theatre and the community it serves should be bound closely together.

“One of the joys of doing Romeo and Juliet is that we can bring in aspiring young actors and give them some hands-on experience.”

This sense of camaraderie is very important for a play like Romeo and Juliet, which is very much about family ties and bonds of friendship. For these bonds to work on stage, then they have to be formed off-stage as well, and Lynn is happy for the company and production staff to engage in lunch-time football matches.

“It’s all about creating those bonds which tie everyone together. It’s about being a group of like-minded friends keeping an eye out for each other and enjoying one another’s company.”

The play is being performed straight, with no updating or moving the action to a Godfather “Mafia” scenario.

“What I wanted to do was stage a production which was a straight, faithful production of the text. We have all seen Shakespeare transported to different settings, and Shakespeare is very good at highlighting metaphors and timeless parallels, but I wanted this production to be very much set in Italy in a timeless part.

“I really wanted the audience to view it as if it were really happening in front of them. I wanted it to be recognisable as Italian and in the past, but not any specific time.

“I didn’t want people worrying about the use of acronistic props or signs or whatever. I wanted the audience to concentrate on the story told by the play. It happens in this world, in this bubble, regardless of the outside world.”

The setting is rather like going on holiday to Italy, renting a farmhouse or country cottage which has been there, unchanged, for a couple of hundred years. The landscape has remained more or less the same for 200 years. “I wanted it to be a fictional place but recognisably Italy at some time in the past. So it has a rather folky feel to it and could be 80 years ago or 380 years ago. We have avoided any reference that pins it to a particular time.”

She said that atmosphere has a huge role to play in setting the scene, and the addition of music plays a big part in providing a feel for time and place.

“The music states quite firmly that we are in the past. There is no additional recorded music. There are no recorded sound-effects. Everything is live. All you get is live music and live singing. You get music because there are musicians in the play at that time.

“We don’t add in any extra atmosphere music. It only exists if the play requires it to exist.”

The first musical sequence is at the Capulets’ party, and the dancing is based on a genuine Italian folk dance and the music is a traditional Italian folk tune.

“Then we have put in a song for the funeral and the lyrics for that aren’t Shakespeare but are taken from a 15th century Italian poem. So it’s all woven together as seamless as we can make it.”

She said that the young musicians were not an existing band but have come together specifically to do the play. They are also playing the servants and the clowns. “One of the things that caught me by surprise was how Shakespeare juxtaposes the terribly tragic stuff with some really funny stuff. The comedy runs all the way and at times borders on being fairly tasteless.

“There was part of me going ‘You can’t do that bit of comedy just after we’ve seen that tragic scene’, but Shakespeare does and he does it again and again – all the time.”

Lynn said she has replaced some of the more obscure Shakespearean word-play moments with some physical comedy, as some of the humour which powered those scenes has been lost over the centuries.

“Those new sharp slapstick scenes tell the same story as those lengthy word-play sequences would have told. I have had to do that a little bit because although Shakespeare says in the prologue ‘This two-hour traffic of our stage’, if you actually did all the words it would probably take you at least three-and-a-half hours to get through it all.

“So we had to lose some words somewhere and, of course, in Shakespeare’s time his plays would have been performed in a multitude of different versions. And who’s to say that the version we have today is everything that he wrote or re-wrote. He was forever snipping lines and trimming work because these plays were written to be performed.

“They were works in progress and shaped to meet the demands of the company on the day. We mustn’t forget that Shakespeare was a showman, not an academic.

“He would have wanted the audience to enjoy the show, rather than dream up a dissertation about the literary merits of the verse. He would have been all about the entertainment.

“Because the literature academics have analysed it and analysed it, it is tempting to put great weight and emphasis on every other semi-colon, whereas it was written to be delivered as dialogue – as speech – to be thrown away if necessary.”

Lynn said she wanted to make the play as recognisable as possible. She didn’t want it to be an alienating experience.

“I am very fond of things that spill over the footlights and the audience knows it’s a show and the show knows that there is an audience watching its every move. I knew that, hopefully, schools would come, that perhaps a large section of the audience may not have seen a Shakespeare on stage before, and therefore I wanted it to be as uncomplicated as possible.

“So I didn’t want people worrying why actor A was wearing a red hat in one scene and a blue one in another, and thinking to themselves ‘That’s an interesting theatrical convention…’ I wanted to play it straight and be as popular and as accessible as we could make it.”

She said that for those who loved the gang elements of West Side Story or Baz Luhrmann’s big-screen version of Romeo and Juliet there was plenty of on-stage action in their version.

“There is plenty of fisticuffs. I wanted the fights to make people gasp. It’s not theatrical, symbolic fighting – I want people to go ‘Did he really punch him in the stomach?’ ‘Is that real blood?’

“We have had a fight director in, who has been working with the lads, and it’s turning into a real edgy encounter. It looks and feels dangerous. I want the audience to think ‘Oh my God, he really is going to slash his face with that knife.’”

She said that casting Romeo and Juliet is not as straightforward as people may think. Romeo may be a romantic, he may love poetry, but he is also a member of a street gang and is accepted as such, so he needs to be able to exist in both worlds.

Equally, Juliet may be a dutiful daughter and the apple of her father’s eye but she also knows her own mind and is no fool.

“When I was casting, I wanted Romeo to be fit in every sense of the word. He has to wear his heart on his sleeve and I wanted him to be the sort of lad who wouldn’t think twice about jumping over an orchard wall to go and chat up a girl he’d just met at a party – even though he knew it was dangerous.

“Juliet, I imagine, has distanced herself from her mother but is really close to her father. I wanted her to be the sort of girl who would roll her sleeves up and lend a hand. I didn’t want her to be untouchable until Romeo, who normally would be right in there, is completely floored by her. He is so smitten by love that she seems like a goddess.

“Juliet knows her own mind. She’s feisty. I wanted her to be able to, in front of all her relatives, snog that mystery man in the mask who has just come in to the party. But, at the same time, she’s a good girl and plays by the rules.”

She added that an essential part of the emotional landscape is that Benvolio, Mercutio and Romeo be an identifiable group of mates. “They are really close. You know those three guys; everyone has been to school with a group like that.”

She said that for any production of Romeo and Juliet the secret to a successful staging is in the dramatic ending and how much you believe in the pair of star-crossed lovers.

“We have to make the audience believe that they are consumed by that teenage angst. Alas, we do know that it can drive young people to threaten all sorts of things, whether they see it through or not.

“We know that when Romeo gets to the tomb he has already decided on his course of action. He’s already made that leap into death by killing someone.

“What interests me is how isolated they become. He’s gone from being one of the boys – everyone loves him – and Juliet being the centrepoint of her family, and suddenly they are exposed and alone.

“They are left alone to deal with things that they should never be left alone to deal with.”

She said that remains the heart of the play.

People put themselves in their position and contemplate how they would have coped with having to make those same decisions at such a young age.

“The play has lasted because the emotions are real and the situations remain recognisable. Young love is always tortured.”

Romeo and Juliet is running at Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal from Thursday, February 21 to March 9.

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