Romeo and Juliet [Chapterhouse Theatre] – Review – Sheffield Cathedral
By Elizabeth Stanforth-Sharpe, July 2022
Lincoln based Chapterhouse Theatre has become synonymous with summertime picnics in stately places, followed by performances of Classic literature – this year’s offerings include Cinderella and Pride and Prejudice, but the company was originally formed in 1999 specifically to tour Shakespearean productions, and the season’s inclusion of Romeo and Juliet in the programming takes it right back to its roots.
I watched the performance in the light, airy nave of Sheffield Cathedral. It has the space of an outdoor arena, audience members were able to move around to adjust their viewing points or have a wander with restless children. The Victorian architecture of this part of the building lent itself well to the illusion of a Gothic tomb, and the George Wilson Pulpit provided a natural balcony, but there are also disadvantages; long pews span the width of the nave, which made it difficult for those seated in the middle to move without causing disruption, seating is all on one level making any action that takes place below seat height impossible for those ‘trapped’ further back to see, and the high original roof lines coupled with the modern, open layout of the whole of this part of the Cathedral (which is brilliantly designed to include an art gallery, shop, bar and café) doesn’t have the acoustic integrity of the enclosed sanctuary areas.
Romeo and Juliet was one of Shakespeare’s earlier plays, first premiered in 1596, and one of his most familiar. From two feuding families of Verona, a young man and young woman discover a love for each other but recognise that the enmity of their parents will not allow them to marry, forcing them to secretly elope, with the help of Juliet’s nurse and Friar Laurence, who performs their marriage ceremony. The townspeople are so fed up with the constant brawling between the two families that the Prince declares whoever sheds blood next will be banished from the city. Juliet’s cousin Tybalt challenges Romeo to a duel, he declines the bait, but his friend Mercutio jumps to the challenge in his place and is killed.
Romeo avenges his friend by killing Tybalt, and after spending one stolen night with Juliet, he is banished from the city and flees to Mantua. Juliet, whose family do not know that she is already married, is to be betrothed to Paris, a kinsman of the Prince. She turns to Friar Laurence for help, fakes her own death and lies in a tomb waiting for Romeo to come so that they can run away together. Romeo doesn’t receive the message about the plan, so thinks Juliet has really died. He goes to Verona and sees Juliet in her tomb, ‘dead’. Romeo drinks poison so that he can be with Juliet in death, she wakes up to discover Romeo is dead, and, distraught, kills herself with his dagger. Both families, having lost children as a consequence of their own animosity, vow to be reconciled.
It’s a story that has been re-visited many, many times, on stage, in films, ballet, musical and audio-book, and with each spectacular re-telling it becomes harder to find original ways to present well, but sometimes the simplicity of traditional story-telling can be just as effective, especially for smaller companies such as Chapterhouse, and it is often through these accessible, engaging, productions that young people gain their first introduction to the work of Shakespeare.
Philip Stevens has worked extensively as a director, writer, and producer for both film and theatre, including a good number of productions for Chapterhouse, a company that he performed with as a young actor. Indeed, 22 years ago, he was an actor in Chapterhouse’s first open-air tour of Romeo and Juliet, so to be directing their 2022 version has special resonance.
The set, designed by Lou Jardine, consisting of monochrome blocks, is elegantly understated, but is more than sufficient to define the area. Utilised in the Sheffield Cathedral setting, the architectural features added to, rather than hindered, the sense of place; a pulpit became a balcony, and a wooden cross above a memorial stone organically enhanced the atmosphere of the crypt. My only reservation was that no stage had been erected – it may well have been that the one Chapterhouse uses did not fit the area, but it meant that much of the salient ground level action was unseen.
“Intelligent and sensitive”
Elizabethan clothing was not known for its ease of dressing, but Pearl Constance and Nikkiita McLusky have produced costumes that give a plausible nod to the period, with all the convenience of quick changes.
Annini Kaski, begins the play with the 14-line chorus sonnet that forms the Prologue, her rich, balanced voice drawing the audience in to the streets of Verona. Sampson and Gregory stroll in, conspiring to start a fight with the Montagues, and we settle back to watch the trysts, deceits and tragedies unfold.
Robert Bingham plays a prudent Lord Capulet, who thinks he knows best for his daughter, but is blissfully vague about what Juliet might want or feel, and an exceedingly creepy Apothecary whose morals do not outweigh his need for money.
Troy Chessman plays the handsome, intelligent and sensitive Romeo who, despite his family’s feuding is not interested in violence, but only in love. First, he fancies himself to be in love with the fair Rosaline, but the moment he sets eyes on Juliet his affections are transferred. Chessman has dedicated his performance to the memory of his nan, May; she would surely be rightly very proud.
Making her professional theatre debut and in her first tour with Chapterhouse, Amelia Howe plays the page and Balthasar, but it is as Benvolio, Romeo’s cousin, confidante and thoughtful friend, that she is given scope to stretch herself as an actor, and she can be assured that she has made a very worthy start to her career.
Annini Kaski is wonderfully comic as Juliet’s Nurse; vulgar, earthy, long-winded and given to inappropriate comments but, until their disagreement, a loyal support for Juliet and a conspirator in Juliet’s love for Romeo.
For Caitlin Swanton, this summer’s production with Chapterhouse constitutes her first UK tour, but I am confident that it certainly won’t be her last. Swanton excels as a character actor, and as Lady Capulet, the ineffectual mother, who by her own estimations gave birth to Juliet when she was 14, has relied on the Nurse for moral and pragmatic support throughout her daughter’s life, and who now wishes her to marry Paris regardless of Juliet’s desire for him, she is superbly oblivious to how irritating she is.
Aidan Valentine competently mops up the roles of a very presumptuous and possessive Paris, Romeo’s father, Montague, concerned for his son’s well-being, and vain, aggressive, swordsman Tibalt.
It is, however, for Bethany Down, the greatest applause in this production must come. She has stepped into the breach at the last moment, to play Gregory, Mercutio and the Friar. Gregory, a servant of the Capulet household is merely there to stir up trouble and provoke a fight with the Montagues. Mercutio, as Romeo’s close friend, is a more complicated character to grasp; an imaginative, witty hothead who finds Romeo’s romantic notions of love tiresome, seeing women as requisites merely for satisfying sexual appetite.
Friar Laurence is vital to the development of the play, driving the drama through his actions. At first wary of Romeo’s request to be married to Juliet, so soon after Romeo’s relationship with Rosaline, but then realising that marrying the pair could bring about the end of years of feuding between the houses of Capulet and Montague. He then goes on to make decision after decision, all of which are mistakes, and all major plot development moments. Some bad luck with his message not being delivered adds to the growing mess, meaning his plan to drug Juliet so that she will appear to be dead, later to be revived and carried away by Romeo, is doomed.
And then, when Juliet wakes up in the tomb and finds that Romeo has killed himself, the friar fails to get her to leave the tomb with him, and he hurries away without her because he is afraid of being caught by the watch in the middle of this carnage. Because of his failure, she also commits suicide. Ironically, he achieves his objective of uniting the feuding families, but not in the way he has envisaged.
For Down to play the complexities of both Mercutio and the Friar without extensive rehearsal preparation was an accomplished feat to pull off. In theatres up and down the land, in these strange days, we have become accustomed to replacement actors being enrolled during runs, and perhaps it’s easy to be blasé about this, but the reality is that taking on a complex character that generally develops and emerges for the actor through extensive table talks, directorial discussion and rehearsal experimentation, and to be expected to execute it well, is no easy task. Down had not one, but two, of the play’s pivotal characters, and she did a mighty fine job with both.
After the interval, the cast drew the audience back with a stunningly beautiful adaptation of ‘The Willow Song’, more associated with Shakespeare’s Desdemona and Othello, but immediately understandable as a portend of the tragedy that will befall the young lovers Romeo and Juliet as the play continues. The willow has long been used as a symbol of love, loss, weeping and tears, but also of rebirth and vitality (a broken branch of willow can be placed in the ground, and a new tree will emerge), so is equally indicative of the broken relationship between the Capulets and the Montagues being restored.
The musical composition for this production is done by the very talented Trouvere Medieval Musicians whose long list of instruments includes the gittern, hurdy-gurdy, bag-pipes, whistles and drums, used to recreate and re-interpret the music of the high middle ages, and just perfect to accompany this piece.
Chapterhouse, with a cast of eight, have achieved something quite charming in their version of Romeo and Juliet. You won’t find grand scenery or extravagant costumes, but you will find Shakespeare’s tale told in a manner that is unadorned, well done, fresh, and accessible to all.
The tour continues to a huge variety of venues throughout the summer, and no matter where you live in the UK there is certain to be one performance not far from you. Just one tip; take a small amount of cash with you. The company is small, doesn’t carry a card machine, and programme purchases are cash only.
More info: chapterhouse.org
Images taken from a different production location