Romeo and juliet

What Shakespeare meant to the Bloomsbury Group

In November 1935, Virginia Woolf saw a production of Romeo and Juliet. She was not overly impressed. ‘Acting it,’ she wrote, ‘they spoil the poetry.’ Harsh words, you might think, for a cast that included John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Peggy Ashcroft, Edith Evans and Alec Guinness. But Shakespeare on the stage was something of a bête noire for the Bloomsbury group. ‘We, of course, only read Shakespeare,’ Clive Bell later said. The Shakespeare that mattered was the one on the page. Shakespeare on stage was a bête noire for the Bloomsberries. ‘We, of course, only read Shakespeare,’ said Clive Bell Who was that ‘we’, though? Marjorie Garber’s understanding of the

Shakespeare on screen: 8 unmissable adaptations

The National Theatre’s made-for-screen production of Romeo and Juliet (currently available on Sky Arts) has been delighting theatre-starved Shakespeare fans over the past week. Starring Josh O’Connor and Jessie Buckley this intimately shot film version of the Shakespeare play makes for perfect viewing for an audience starved of both social contact and theatre.  If you’re in the mood for more of the Bard, and can’t wait until theatres reopen, here’s our pick of the best film adaptations. A Midsummer’s Night Dream (2016), BritBox With a judicious trim of the text, the ever-wonderful Russell T Davies turns Shakespere’s classic comedy into the perfect prime time romp. Whether it’s the campy fascism of

What the sonnets tell us about Shakespeare

When Romeo and Juliet first meet at a party, their words to one another fall into the form of a sonnet: an exchange of 14 lines, expressing mutual love and ending with a neat rhyming couplet and a kiss. It is a touching, haunting moment, and like so much in Shakespeare, it also has an opposite. A little earlier in the play, Juliet’s mother Lady Capulet tries to praise Romeo’s rival Paris, and describes the hapless Paris in a horrible string of six rhyming couplets (‘This precious book of love, this unbound lover,/ To beautify him, only lacks a cover’). These 12 lines fail as a sonnet, where Romeo’s and


There was blood on the walls and floor at the birth of Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet in 1965. The violence of the subject was matched by the goings-on in the wings, the scrap over the first-night casting, in which the original Juliet, the young Lynn Seymour, found herself relegated down the list having had an abortion to take the role. Due to Machiavellian box-office politics, the première was staged with Fonteyn and Nureyev as the young lovers, and rising star MacMillan, horrified at being steamrollered, quit the Royal Ballet. None of the smell of blood and fury survives in the Royal Ballet’s scrupulously scrubbed-down 50th anniversary staging. Though there

From teenage passion…

The 16-year-old hero of David Nicholls’s fifth novel is ostensibly Everyboy. It is June 1997, the last day at dreary Merton Grange and, having flunked his exams, Charlie Lewis attends the leaving disco — all dry ice, vomit and snogging, laced with Cointreau and disinfectant. An infinity looms of bloated summer days, with only a part-time, underpaid garage job as distraction. Home is a small southern English Everytown, neither city, suburb nor rural village, with Dog Shit Park and Murder Wood ‘where porn yellowed beneath the brambles’. Worse, Charlie’s parents have separated, and he is stranded with his depressed, boozy, bankrupt father, eating cold curry from takeaway foil containers. An

Menace and magnificence

Two households, both alike in dignity. Capulets in red tights, Montagues in green. Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet opens in a piazza where the clash of swords makes a fifth section of the orchestra. Strings, woodwind, brass, percussion… and steel. If Shakespeare’s young bloods and blades once seemed remotely Renaissance, made romantic by distance, Verona’s knife-crime crisis is now horribly real and present. Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio (Matthew Ball, Valentino Zucchetti and James Hay) make a convincing gang: pumped-up, freewheeling, anarchic. They goose the harlots, twit the nurse and goad each other in reckless acts of lads, lads, lads bravado. Their bragging, ragging gatecrashers’ dance is a tour de force.

Another tale of star-crossed lovers

It’s hard, in Britain, to imagine a popular museum devoted to a single poem. The Polish city of Wrocław hosts just such a shrine. It celebrates Pan Tadeusz, the verse novel written in his Parisian exile by the poet, dramatist and freedom fighter Adam Mickiewicz in the early 1830s, and now taught as a keystone of collective identity to every Polish schoolchild. Even the idea of a ‘national epic’ sounds like a great big bore, especially as the action of this one turns on a sideshow in the Lithuanian backwoods during the Napoleonic wars, while ‘the wide world ran riot/ In blood and tears’. Certainly, no previous translation has done

Scent and sensibility

Patrick Mason’s new production of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette reminded me of something, but it took a while to work out what. We saw shiny black walls with chrome Bauhaus details, and a swirl of mist through which beautiful people moved in black formal wear. Then Olena Tokar made her entrance as Juliette, and as she pirouetted about the stage, evening dress sparkling, it clicked. It’s a perfume advert. The artificiality, the chic, the sexy little hint of affluence with top notes of fascism: you half-expected billowing curtains to reveal a giant bottle of Chanel No. 5. It fitted right in at West Horsley, where the programme book contains adverts

Seeing the light | 19 October 2017

Dance is an ephemeral art. It keeps few proper records of its products. Reputations are written in rumours and reviews. And by reputation, Kenneth MacMillan was the dark genius of British ballet — its destroyer, if you listen to some. They think this country’s classical ballet reached its pinnacle under the Apollonian hand of Frederick Ashton, before MacMillan stomped in with his working-class neuroses and rape simulations and took ballet down to the psychological underworld. It’s an absurd reduction, since Ashton was quite as screwed up as MacMillan, but the notion persists of the two of them embodying opposite sides of the British ballet coin, order and chaos. Both giants

Wish upon a star

Out come the stars in Kenneth Branagh’s Romeo and Juliet. He musters a well-drilled, celebrity-ridden crew but they can’t quite get the rocket off the launchpad. The stylish setting evokes Italy in the early 1950s. The girls wear New Look frocks and the boys sport tight slacks and shirtsleeves. Christopher Oram’s muted set has bland marble walls and tasteless squared-off pillars like a modern dictator’s palace on the Euphrates. A rare failure. Romeo is played by Game of Thrones inmate Richard Madden, who seems a handsome enough specimen, but Branagh might have asked him to act with his soul rather than his forearms. And he looks too mature. To kill

Nostalgia and nihilism

‘Gilded doorknobs,’ spits a Party diehard as she contemplates the blessings of the Soviet Union’s collapse. ‘Is this freedom?’ Dozens of witnesses from the ‘lost generation’ in Russia who had ‘a communist upbringing and a capitalist life’ share Elena S’s disgust and bewilderment as they contribute to this epic fresco of an empire’s bitter aftermath. Some adjust smartly to the post-Soviet disorder, although a 35-year-old advertising manager reflects that ‘I never dreamed of being fucked in stairwells or saunas in exchange for expensive dinners.’ The few winners and many losers agree: ‘You can’t buy democracy with oil and gas… You need free people, and we didn’t have them.’ Since the


The feeding frenzy over the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death has reached its peak. Recently we’ve had Shakespeare’s complete works performed through the puppetry of kitchenware. On books pages, you can read about everything from Edward Wilson-Lee’s Shakespeare in Swahililand (surprisingly beguiling) to Simon Andrew Stirling’s Shakespeare’s Bastard: A Life of Sir William Davenant (he wasn’t). Meanwhile, the Royal Mail is launching a set of stamps emblazoned with snappy quotations. And it’s this glib series that encapsulates the anniversary problem. Shakespeare’s beauty lies not in his maxims but in the complexity of every line; the power of context, character and plot to suggest myriad meanings, each one undercutting the

Wherefore art thou Romeo?

You always remember your first time, don’t you? And in ballet one imagines that Juliet wants to remember her first Romeo as a thunderclap. So the Royal Ballet’s director Kevin O’Hare, for reasons best known to himself, gives the most exciting new young star the Royal Ballet has seen for years the role of Juliet and…Matthew Golding as Romeo. And so it was that Francesca Hayward’s mesmerising debut in this most prized of all Royal ballerina roles will be remembered as a bomb exploding in a vacuum. This Juliet will have to hunt for a new Romeo to find her match; she will have better nights to remember than that

50 shades of beige: English National Ballet’s Modern Masters at Sadler’s Wells, reviewed

My moment of the week was stumbling into the shocking, fantastical Cabinet of Curiosities in the Alexander McQueen show at the V&A. On the walls were tier upon tier of dresses, shoes and headdresses, feathered, leathered, beaded, painted, razored, or tenderly embroidered with a fairy needle. Rotating at the centre of the room was the Spray Paint Dress that a dazed Shalom Harlow wore while robots ejaculated paint over her in 1998. What could be more sinisterly resonant of classical ballet’s erotic world? McQueen made his one and only ballet working with Sylvie Guillem 18 months before his suicide — remember her as the cross-gender Chevalier d’Eon in Eonnagata? But

Romeo and Juliet: a Mariinsky masterclass

According to some textbooks, one thing the fathers of Soviet choreography hastened to remove from ballet was that awkward-looking language of gestures generally referred to as ‘ballet mime’. Which explains why most Russian versions of Swan Lake lack familiar mime dialogues. And when it came to creating new ballets that required silent acting, such as Lavrosky’s 1940 Romeo and Juliet, the early Soviet dance-makers opted for a more naturalistic form of expressive gestural solutions. Yet, as is often the case with theatre practices, what was once innovative and naturalistic now looks as trite as 19th-century pantomime. Whether the problem comes down to training new generations of dancers in understanding the

Romeo, Juliet and Mussolini

George Balanchine’s Serenade, the manifesto of 20th-century neoclassical choreography, requires a deep understanding of both its complex stylistic nuances and its fascinatingly elusive visual metaphors. Many recent stagings have failed to meet such criteria,  but not the performance I saw last week. Things did not exactly start especially well, as the opening group of ladies with raised arms lacked ‘magic’ evenness. But as soon as both Marianela Nuñez and Lauren Cuthbertson darted on stage, the whole performance became incandescent. The two artists, perfect modern-day incarnations of Balanchine’s female ideal, were soon joined by the equally superb Melissa Hamilton and the neoclassical perfection of Matthew Golding. Ryoichi Hirano, too, was good,

All over the place

Deceptively attractive. Romeo and Juliet tempts directors and leads them on while keeping all its false doors and secret pitfalls out of view. Rupert Goold’s RSC production is two fifths good and three fifths indifferent. A respectable score. This lovely, tricky and rather silly play isn’t the work of a genius but of a jobbing apprentice with a careless, or perhaps ambitious, sense of what could be managed on stage. Goold adds a spot of extra bother here and there, overusing the balcony, bunging Arabic music into the masque ball, and botching the costumes. Spectacular irrelevance seems to be his guiding principle. The street brawls are enlivened by whooshes of