ONE of Shakespeare’s most iconic roles, Romeo, is being played by 16-year-old Jay Duffy, son of former Boyzone member and Coronation Street actor Keith Duffy, in Corcadorca’s production of Romeo and Juliet at the Cork Opera House from Oct 10-20.
Duffy, a transition year pupil at Belvedere College in Dublin, made his TV acting debut last year as Declan Brady in the British soap opera Hollyoaks, having been spotted by a talent scout in his school’s production of Peter Pan. Duffy, who wants to be an actor when he leaves school, says he will probably use the Corcadorca experience for his transition year work placement project.
“This is an amazing opportunity,” says Duffy, who plays opposite Aisling Franciosi, 18, as Juliet. “When my agent told me that Pat Kiernan [artistic director of Corcadorca] wanted to hear me read for the role, I grabbed the opportunity.”
Romeo is about 14 years of age when he falls for Juliet. Both characters come from families that are feuding with each other, creating major difficulties from the moment they meet. Duffy explains how his character thinks he’s initially in love with a girl called Rosaline. “But when he sees Juliet, he has to come to terms with realising he can’t live without her. Romeo goes through so many emotions which I’m trying my best to portray. There’s anger, there’s love, and there’s friendship.”
As Duffy says of his first professional stage role, he’s “jumping straight in at the deep end. I think it’s a great play. It’s an absolute tragedy at the end but there’s a few laughs in it as well.” Because of his father, Duffy says he has been interested in performing from an early age. “I knew I wanted to act as soon as I started secondary school.” He shares the same agent as his father.
Being the son of Keith Duffy helps. “I suppose I wouldn’t have the opportunities I’ve had without him. He has helped me along the way. He’s very supportive.”
Kiernan was initially torn between casting experienced actors that look young for the roles of Romeo and Juliet, and casting teenage actors. He says the most important thing is that the actors portray intense first love. “Romeo liked the idea of being in love with Rosaline, but when he encounters Juliet and she him, they are overpowered by their feelings for each other. This play is a monument to love.”
In interpreting the play, Kiernan initially toyed with the idea of making it very obviously contemporary, using instant communication such as texting. But as he points out, miscommunication — whereby Romeo fails to receive the crucial letter from Juliet explaining her pretence at being dead — is the “bedrock of the play. It means that Romeo is out of the loop.”
Timeless rather than contemporary is the word Kiernan prefers to describe his take on the play. “I’m not attempting to make the play seem as if it is happening now. It’s more to do with a created world rather than trying to establish an exact one.”
There is an audio-visual element in the production, allowing for close-ups of characters that would otherwise be in the background. “This will exaggerate some of the internal things going on with some of the characters. The audience will see more intimate details of them, such as the expression in their eyes.”
The public has been asked to post their declarations of love to the Cork Opera House as well as ballot boxes in city and county libraries. These will be used in the production in a way that will be a surprise, says Kiernan.
“What I find interesting is that, even today, people write letters to Juliet in Verona asking for advice on love. The letters are posted to Verona and there are people employed to respond to them. People obviously feel a connection with Juliet.”
Underlying the pervasive influence of the play is the commonly used description of lover boys as being “‘right Romeos’. That’s still in our vocabulary. Often, people use the term without actually knowing the play.”
The tragedy in Romeo and Juliet doesn’t stem from flawed central characters but rather, it has as its base, the civil unrest arising from deep divisions between the Capulets and the Montagues. “It’s a generational thing. The parents are attempting to have their children live the lives they want them to live rather than letting the children live their own lives.”
Ger Fitzgibbon, retired head of drama and theatre studies at UCC, is the script editor for Romeo and Juliet. He says the temptation with the play is “is to make it about something else, such as a current issue about gangs in Dublin, Cork, or Limerick. Pat wants to steer clear of that so that the core of the play is the love story.”
The language of the play is, says Fitzgibbon, more accessible than, for example, Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, produced by Corcadorca last year. “It is an easy play to edit. The most severe cutting we did was to the top and tail of the play. Some of Shakespeare’s comedy and situation comedy is wonderfully durable. But when it comes to slang and puns and jokes that rely on very localised idioms and double meaning, that’s really tricky. If you have to have a footnote to explain the joke, it’s not really very funny. That would be an area I’ve targeted from the outset. You have to find another way of translating that for the audience.”
Describing the original play as “a bit ragged around the edges”, Fitzgibbon says it contains elements that “you wonder whether the mature Shakespeare would have written”. Towards the conclusion of the play, “there is what seems like an intrusive sword fight. You become aware of the circumstances in which the play was written and the theatre for which it was written. It was a theatre called the Curtain, a fairly rough and ready establishment in London where the audience wanted lots of action.”
Editing Shakespeare has happened right from the beginning, with differing versions of his plays extant. “You have to be conscious that in Shakespeare’s day, the plays were cut to about two hours, which we have done.”
Corcadorca has considerable experience of staging Shakespeare’s plays. But last year was the first time the company staged Shakespeare in the traditional stage setting of the Cork Opera House. Prior to that, its acclaimed productions of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, The Merchant of Venice, and The Tempest were site-specific.
Kiernan says he loves directing site-specific theatre “and it’s something we’ll hopefully do again next year”.
Depending on funding, the company hopes to produce Pat McCabe’s The Stars of Bel Air next year. The play received a rehearsed reading at the TDC (Theatre Development Centre) at Triskel earlier this year. Corcadorca runs the TDC, which is “a real success story”. It facilitates companies wishing to stage professional productions by giving them space to develop plays and perform readings of them to audiences.
“There’s a real vibrancy in the theatre scene in Cork City. Because of the TDC, it’s more visible now. All the people working in the TDC were working in theatre anyway. But the TDC is a place which helps it to happen and there’s also a focus from the outside,” says Kiernan.