Romeo and Juliet (2002): Chichester Festival Theatre
PrRomeo and Juliet (2002)
This production ran from 27 August - 5 October 2002, according to Theatre Record.
"The rich canvas of Constantinople supplies an opulent backdrop to a Romeo and Juliet where tensions between Islam and Christianity provide painfully topical spurs to the young lovers' destruction. Indhu Rubasingham's vibrant production celebrates the energies of a multi-cultural society, throwing into sharp focus Shakespeare's searing questions about how different groups survive when blind hatred becomes a way of life. The call of the muezzin and the symmetric patterns of Ottoman stonework bestow a romantic exoticism on this Middle Eastern Verona. Subtle new meanings erupt from the text: when Muslim Romeo declares, 'I'll be new batised,' his words take on added resonance since he is striving to overcome both his name and his religion in order to run off with Juliet's eagerly offered virginity. Rubasingham is not the first director to use religious schism as fuel for this story of star-crossed lovers, and Constantinople is an inspired location for the drama's complexities. Where the production really takes off - after a slightly sluggish start - is in her ability to shine new light on the universal aspects, releasing both ecstatically comic and tragic energy from seemingly well-known passages." ~ Rachel Halliburton, "Eastern twist to old tale of lovers", Evening Standard, 28 August 2002.
"The director, Indhu Rubasingham, hasn't made the change just to be different, however. She has a serious purpose - an urgent one, even. As a programme note explains, the new setting is meant to establish a comparison between 'the danger inherent within the play' and a modern world which is beset, or so the note says, 'by anti-Islamic tension'....Whether there is anything to be gained by transplanting the play itself is another matter, but there is plainly a risk of creating inconsistencies and incongruities....That it's an Eastern cit, Colin Falconer's designs and Paul Englishby's music make clear. There are ornate lanterns, intricately patterned stonework, calls to prayer from unseen minarets; and while there is very little tampering with the text, one or two additions confirm that we have left Italy a long way behind. Romeo greets Friar Lawrence with a 'salaam aleikum' (though the friar still exclaims 'Holy Saint Francis!' a few lines later)....Luckily the multicultural theme isn't pushed hard enough to capsize the production. The play survives. But its centre of interest has been subtly displaced: it is less firmly anchored to romantic love and family politics than it ought to be." ~ John Gross, "Salaam Romeo and Juliet", Sunday Telegraph, 1 September 2002.
"A church bell tolls. There's a call to prayer from a nearby minaret. On come two sets of worshippers, all in Asiatic dress, but some wearing the turbans that proclaim their Islamic faith. A fight breaks out in front of opposing banners, one embossed with a cross, one bearing the slogan 'God the compassionate and merciful.' Enter a rajah, with majestic red robes and triumphal feathers where a crown might be. So begins Indhu Rubasingham's revival of Romeo and Juliet. It's bold, topical stuff, scarcely what one expects in a theatre that is still sometimes accused of being excessively conventional, but does it work? There I'm not so sure. For one thing, the production has its confusing moments, since Rubasingham opts for colour-blind casting, which means that actors of Asian, Afro-Caribbean and Saxon descent are indiscriminately scattered among the Christian Capulets and Muslim Montagues. For another, it's hard to say where their conflicts are occurring. Romeo's place of exile is identified as Mantua, but his place of birth, Verona, is simply called "the city". Are we in surreal Bradford? Somewhere in Kashmir? Search me....A brave experiment, then; but one that left me feeling that a revival safely sited in Verona might be more eloquent." ~ Benedict Nightingale, "Lovers in a bold climate", Times, 29 August 2002.
"Bright ideas are not enough. You have to endow them with theatrical logic. And the problem with Indhu Rubasingham's new production...is that, having decided to set the action in 17th-century Istanbul where Muslim confronts Christian, she seems to have little notion what to do next. You deduce the Montagues are Muslim by the fact that they sport turbans (or, in one case, the kerchief known as a keffiyeh) and that Romeo greets Friar Lawrence with 'Salaam'. The Capulets, almost by default, become their Christian antagonists. But aparf from the odd detail - such as a Muslim banner being daubed with blood and the final gesture whereby a Christian girl spits at a Muslim boy - the idea creates more problems than it solves....For all the decorative minarets, brandished scimitars and sounds of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer, Istanbul remains a theatrical setting rather than a place of religious rage." ~ Michael Billington, "Shakespeare's religion-cross'd lovers", Guardian, 29 August 2002.
"The most electric sequence occurs right at the end. Chastened by the corpses of the lovers, the two sides come together with an uncomfortably sentimental glibness. A Muslim lady walks across to give Lady Capulet a comforting hug. The two grief-stricken fathers support each other like old friends as they make their exit. Then this queasy spectacle of rushed optimism is viciously undercut. Left on stage alone, a little turbaned boy goes to embrace a Christian girl, and at the last moment she spits straight in his face. So much for the brave new future. This honourable but underpowered production could do with a few more inspired jolts of that kind." ~ Paul Taylor, "Culture clash and confusion", Independent, 30 August 2002.
"In the wake of September 11, and with growing tension between the Christian and Islamic worlds, the temptation to shift Romeo and Juliet from fair Verona to Istanbul must have been a strong one. Nevertheless, the director Indhu Rubasingham should have resisted it. Yes, the tense relations between Muslims and Christians in 17th-century Istanbul furnish a potent, topical background to the play, but only by making a nonsense of the plot. The fact is that both the Montagues and the Capulets are explicitly Christian families, as is the Prince who is so incensed by their civil brawls. Both Romeo and Juliet seek the counsel and support of Friar Lawrence, but it is hard to imagine even the most ecumenically-minded cleric cheerfully marrying a Muslim and a Christian in church. In order for Rubasingham's transposition of the play to the Ottoman empire to work, Romeo must be presented as a Muslim who converts to Christianity. This would then become by far the most interesting aspect of his somewhat pallid personality. Unfortunately, Shakespeare wasn't writing for a modish 21st-century director and failed to supply the back story or the dialogue that Rubasingham's reckless hijacking of the play demands. Simply bunging in the odd 'Salaam' really won't do....It's a shame that the directorial concept should have undermined the show, for elsewhere this Romeo and Juliet has a lot going for it. Rubasingham takes the action at a lively clip, and the wonder of young love is often beautifully caught....An uneven and wrong-headed production then, but one that does at least allow the marvellous Emily Blunt to shine." ~ Charles Spencer, "What a load of old Istanbul", Daily Telegraph, 30 August 2002.
"As the grim anniversary of 9/11 approaches with Bush and Saddam Hussein apparently heading for a pitched battle, Indhu Rubasingham's new production of Romeo and Juliet pleads for peacemaking between Christian and Muslim....Garbed in embroidered silks, the Capulets are of wealthy Orthodox Greek stock (or so the programme notes imply); Romeo and the Montagues wear simple Islamic turbans. In the textually slashed opening scene, the families brawl in the market place with clanging scimitars, and religious banners are desecrated. By the close of play, the city's governor has overseen an entente. But, of course, this is after the deaths of the lovers and, in a pessimistic final twist, an infant Capulet spits on a would-be playmate, failing to learn from history." ~ Kate Bassett, "Wherefore art thou a Muslim, Romeo?", Independent on Sunday, 1 September 2002.
"This muddled, lumbering production should be a warning to young directors - and, for that matter, to those well struck in years - that having a Big Idea is not enough. Indhu Rubasingham sets the play in a Muslim city, ruled by a Muslim prince, where there is a strong Christian community. Church bells are heard at the same time as the call of the muezzin. The Montagues are Muslims, the Capulets Christians. this kind of simple-minded takeaway topicality makes me squirm; and given that, in a play based on age-old enmity between families, not a word is said about religious differences, the Muslim-Christian conflict sits on the plot like an ill-fitting hat....The acting suggests that Rubasingham was so preoccupied by her Big Idea that she did not properly attend to her actors. Everybody gesticulates too much: usually a sign that nobody had much of a chance to get inside their role....After the final reconciliation scene, a young boy and girl spit at each other: a touch of pessimistic chic." ~ John Peter, Sunday Times, 15 September 2002.
"It's a superficially attractive idea, but even the alliteration sounds a warning note of excessive glibness: Muslim Montagues, Christian Capulets....it turns out to be one of those cases where, having hit on a high-concept idea, a production than expends energy on it rather than on the core narrative and character portrayals, and in any case does not do enough to bring off the concept....As an indicator of directorial misjudgment, consider the final moment of this staging. Everyone has left the Capulet mausoleum except two young children (what were they doing there in the first place?); the Muslim boy moves towards the Christian girl, who spits at him and stamps out. It is potentially a keen moment pointing up how incomplete is the reconciliation we have just witnessed between the families. In fact, the audience's response was winsome "Ahhhs" at the kiddies, followed by indulgent laughter at the spit: absolutely, diametrically the wrong closing note." ~ Ian Shuttleworth, Financial Times, 4 September 2002, in Theatre Record XXII, Issue 17-18.
"Romeo and the Montagues are Moslems. Juliet and the Capulets are Christians. It works surprisingly well in Indhu Rubasingham's mixed-race production. The odd cry of 'salaam' and 'by Allah' does not detract from the central thrust of innocent young love destroyed by political expediency. But maybe, for a new audience, it adds something fresh. And boy, does Chichester need a new audience." ~ Michael Coveney, Daily Mail, 30 August 2002, in Theatre Record XXII, Issue 17-18.
An interesting sidenote from Jeremy Kingston's review of Salisbury Playhouse's Taming of the Shrew, directed by Douglas Rintoul, which begins: "Salisbury Playhouse begins its new season with a Shrew set in a contemporary North Italy that has somehow managed to become Muslim. This quirky notion doesn't play such havoc with the words as Chichester's placing of Romeo and Juliet in the Ottoman Empire but the decision opens its own trapdoors." ~ Jeremy Kingston, The Times, 11 September 2002.