IKE so many of William Shakespeare’s plays, Romeo and Juliet is a work that transcends theatre, its tale of love across the social divide having become an iconic myth of Western culture.
It is thus a narrative with which modern audiences are very deeply familiar. According to Wayne Jordan, director of a new production at Dublin’s Gate Theatre, the audience’s familiarity provides not just a challenge but an opportunity.
“The fun of a work like this is you get to play with the audience’s expectations of what the story is going to be,” he says.
“A play like this is marinated in 400 years of Western culture, so it’s full of resonances and ambivalences and roads less taken that you can toy around with.”
As those familiar with his past work on vibrant, quirky shows such as La Dispute, Celebration, and Alice in Funderland will know, Jordan is certainly not afraid to toy around on a stage when given the opportunity.
The Dubliner has established himself as a recurrent figure at both of the country’s big theatre ‘houses’, the Abbey and the Gate. His last assignment at the Abbey was a playful take on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night last year.
“I found that such an incredibly rich experience,” says Jordan.
“So I really wanted to do another Shakespeare. This play is maybe a little more taut. It’s much more about the nature of power than my production of Twelfth Night was and so that gives it a different kind of drive. But the first half of Romeo and Juliet is really playful and I do feel very invited to be playful.
“The first half is histrionic almost, and bright and funny. And then the second half is really quite dark. So we’re trying to figure out the bridge between those two things. The ‘turn’ is when the character of Mercutio is killed. It’s that thing that your mother always says: ‘It’s all fun and games till someone loses an eye’. So that’s the feel of the first half really. And then after that is the aftermath.”
As the director sees it, Romeo and Juliet is a play about young people wakening up to the nature of identity as much as it is about love. It’s also about how fluid and exorbitant identities are constrained by patriarchal social structures. Beneath the hood of the love story, Jordan spies more at work in the lovers’ motivations than simple romance.
“Romeo is this ball of potentiality who eventually finds someone who’s willing to sleep with him,” he says.
“And Juliet desperately needs to get out of a marriage that her controlling parents have put her into. Her parents are using her as a kind of battleground to work out their own difficulties and anxieties.”
Indeed, Romeo and Juliet is on one level a play about inter-generational breakdown and the cost to any society that too restrictively inhibits its youth.
“The young people, and particularly the young men, in this play seem utterly disenfranchised,” says Jordan.
“They don’t own anything and they don’t have access to marriage. You have this sense of a youth that’s being exploited by an older generation or power, while not being listened to or given any enfranchisement in the structures of power. So it’s like a perfect storm. At the beginning they all fight each other and then at the end they all try to kill themselves.”
An openness to change is an integral theme in the play, says Jordan, and is a theme important to Shakespeare more generally.
“Shakespeare is an incredibly ‘queer’ writer in a way, and I don’t mean that as a word that only belongs to homosexuals but which rather belongs to everybody,” he says.
“Shakespeare is so interested in change and transformation. There are big traces of that in our production — the pain and the necessity of changing on the inside and of changing one’s view of the world.”
In such a spirit of change, there are — appropriately — a number of newcomers in the show, including Fra Fee and Lauren Coe as Romeo and Juliet.
“Because of how iconic the story is, I was looking for people who would make the production feel fresh,” says Jordan.
“Audiences in Dublin will never have seen them before so they’ll be a surprise. And that’s important. Because Romeo and Juliet are still surprising.”
- Romeo and Juliet runs at the Gate Theatre, Dublin, until May 16