A shrill, ugly, tasteless muddle: Romeo & Juliet reviewed

17 July 2021

9:00 AM

17 July 2021

9:00 AM

Romeo & Juliet

Globe Theatre, in rep until 17 October

Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner

Royal Court, until 27 July

What shall we destroy next? Romeo & Julietseems a promising target and the Globe has set out to vandalise Shakespeare’s great romance with a scruffy, rowdy, poorly acted and often incomprehensible modern-dress production. It starts with two lads having a swordfight using curtain poles. Enter the Prince who fires a gun and halts the action. Then the preaching starts. ‘Rather than trying to understand the nature of the violence, the Prince threatens the community,’ says an actor. These intrusions continue. ‘Patriarchy,’ says someone else, ‘is a system in which men hold power.’ The slogan appears on a screen as well. (Patriarchy means ‘fathers’ holding power rather than ‘men’ but perhaps it’s unfair to expect anyone at the Globe to speak English.)

Next comes an advert for big pharma. ‘Twenty per cent of young people experience depression before they reach adulthood,’ says a performer. ‘Seventy-five per cent of children with mental health problems aren’t receiving treatment.’ The claim that depression is a disorder that requires chemical remedies rather than a common but unpleasant experience that can be overcome with willpower is relatively new. And it’s being promoted by medics who seek to enrich themselves by hooking the next generation on antidepressants. Perhaps the Globe should challenge these dope-pedlars rather than abetting them.

Then comes a new slogan — ‘it’s dangerous for women to go outside alone’ — which expresses a view shared by supporters of Sharia law. These invasive, brain-needling messages are compounded by multiple errors of direction. Jazz music destroys the Queen Mab speech. Loud trumpets drown out Romeo during the balcony scene. The fight sequences are confusing because it’s impossible to distinguish Montague from Capulet. (Tip: costumes of different colours can be helpful here.) Too many actors screech out their lines without nuance or feeling. The role of the Nurse makes no sense in a modern-dress production because teenage girls are no longer detained or chaperoned at home. Sirine Saba, a decent comedienne, plays the Nurse as a sort of demented cleaning lady. Friar Laurence has been reimagined as a street florist who specialises in herb seedlings, and Juliet’s death scene takes place inside a 10ft x 6ft greenhouse from Homebase. What a shrill, ugly, tasteless muddle. If only they’d let the text speak for itself. This is a fabulously gripping tale of sex, drugs, knife-crime, gang warfare and suicide, and its leading character is a teenage rebel who believes love is mightier than parental authority and social convention. Shakespeare never wrote a play with a more powerful appeal to modern urban youth but this version can’t draw them in. Around me were yawning, distracted youngsters who seemed far too bored to follow the action.

A much-discussed play from 2019, Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner, has been revived at the Royal Court. Writer Jasmine Lee-Jones should have been asked not to use a title that describes violence against a named individual. Other advice might have helped her too. The play starts with Cleo, an envious black teenager, sending tweets about various acts of brutality being inflicted on the American billionaire, Kylie Jenner. Her friend, Kara, objects to Cleo’s sadistic messages and the pair bicker about how downtrodden they feel. Cleo complains that blackness is equated with ugliness in the media and she resents the theft of her racial identity by white rivals who tan their skins and inject their lips with filler. She doesn’t spot the contradiction here. If black equals ‘ugly’ why would white women beautify themselves with darker flesh and plumper lips? Cleo then turns angrily on mixed-raced Kara. ‘You’re a lighty,’ she scolds. ‘You suffer from lighty-itis.’

It seems that poor old Cleo is rather hard to please on the subject of skin tone. She dislikes being black, she resents Kara’s paler complexion and she denounces an Essex girl for ‘wearing so much fake tan she looks like a pigeon in an oil spill’. But perhaps the Essex girl got her tan while working outdoors without a hat. That’s not thievery, it’s sunshine. This glib and aggressive little play has been garlanded with awards and lavished with praise by genuflecting critics. The writer has a knack for polemic but that’s not the same as drama. Despite passing through four prestigious writing programmes she hasn’t been told that a good play needs a sense of place, of community, of work, of relationships. She doesn’t tell us where her characters live or what they do (if anything). And we learn nothing about their family, friends, neighbours or partners. All we get are two angry popsicles ranting and raging for 90 minutes. These fulminating nitwits have clearly absorbed a lot of cant about colonialism but they don’t know the first thing about life. It hasn’t occurred to them that they’re complicit in their own sense of marginalisation. Anyone can call you a loser or a victim, but only you can choose to believe it.

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