Romeo and Juliet, presented by the Abbey Players at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, 22 February 2008.

Kevin De Ornellas
University of Ulster

Kevin De Ornellas. "Romeo and Juliet, presented by the Abbey Players at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, 22 February 2008.". Early Modern Literary Studies 14.2/Special Issue 17 (September, 2008) 24.1-10 <URL:>

    Directed by Jason Byrne. Set and costume design by Jon Bausor. Lighting Design by Paul Keogan. Music and Sound Design by Denis Clohessy. Choreography by Ella Clarke. Fight Direction by Paul Burke. With Aaron Monaghan (Romeo), Gemma Reeves (Juliet), Ronan Leahy (Benvolio), Michael McElhatton (Mercutio), Karl Shiels (Tybalt), Frank McCusker (Friar Laurence), Peter Gaynor (Prince), Liam Carney (Capulet), Ali White (Lady Capulet), Bosco Hogan (Montague), Noelle Brown (Lady Montague), Aidan Turner (Paris), Anita Reeves (Nurse) and Jessica Kennedy and Megan Kennedy (Dancers).

  1. Of all Shakespeare’s plays, Romeo and Juliet is the one that correlates particularly well with the experiences of many Irish youths. Ireland has always consisted of divided societies: divisions have defined historical eras. Historically, these divisions have been political and religious: schisms include those between landlord and tenant, Catholic and Protestant, pro-Treaty and anti-Treaty. Now that the Northern question has been (at least temporarily) settled, new divisions open up in Ireland. The extraordinary economic fecundity of Southern Ireland in the last two decades (the so-called Celtic Tiger) has opened up new divisions between haves and have nots and between local communities and the many immigrants who have come to a once emigration-marred country to try to clasp the new opportunities.

  2. Wherever there is division, there will be young people who refuse to accept the limitations imposed on them by older perpetrators of societal bifurcation. Irish culture has often celebrated the ‘across the barricades’ love of young people who pursue affective sympathy despite or because of the class, political or sectarian barriers placed in their way. An Irish audience interprets Romeo and Juliet invariably as a play that celebrates society-flouting love and excoriates those who limit youngsters’ lives through the interminable pursuit of ages-old conflicts. Suitably, the play is currently studied by school pupils who sit the Leaving Certificate – the Republic of Ireland’s superior version of the United Kingdom’s ‘A’ levels. In performing Romeo and Juliet, the Abbey Theatre, Ireland’s national theatre, was on one level guaranteeing the theatrical panacea of ‘bums on seats’. The players had a responsibility, though, to impress the many schoolchildren who would inevitably pack the theatre for weeks on end: many of the children would not have attended the theatre before: it was the Abbey’s duty to convince the adolescents that the theatre is a good place to be. The Abbey delivered this responsibility admirably. This splendid production generated enormous acclaim from its (mainly) young audience by presenting a modern-dress interpretation of Romeo and Juliet that was both moral and unproblematically straightforward. Division is wrong and violence is the failure of the imagination, the play appeared to suggest. Those who pursue old grudges (Balthasar, Capulet, Tybalt) are living anachronisms and vicious, selfish thugs; those who seek to ignore or even end the old schisms (Juliet, Friar Laurence, the Prince) are laudable and right. The characters who are reactionary and conflict-pursuing were presented as grim, stern and unsmiling; the characters on the right side of the production’s moral code were amusing, jaunty and sympathetic.

  3. The stage was dominated by scaffolding and planks on one side: for most of the play, this was the only furniture. As well as facilitating the balcony scene and allowing for some spectacular evading action by characters fleeing attackers during the fight scenes, the harsh, metallic impact of the scaffolding conveyed a sense of a Verona where investment in architecture was suspended, pending better days ahead. Given the local hostilities, money would not be spent on fine, frill-enhanced buildings. Buildings are functional, brutal even. The milieu was, then, barren, symptomatic of an almost-abandoned rural jungle where people are too bored and too tired of conflict to build anything of lasting merit: a reminder, perhaps, of Dublin circa 1921 or Derry circa 1974 – or Basra circa 2008. The fight at the start of the play, fought, tellingly, over nothing substantial, was both impressive and vicious. Abraham and Balthasar were wide boys who didn’t know what they were really fighting about: conflicts often facilitate the involvement of hangers-on who like a fight for the sake of a fight. When Capulet and Montague appeared, they were strikingly similar in looks, stature and in body language. They were middle-aged, petty gangsters, heads of their family and their squalid little street empires. The Prince had no time for either of them. He cleared the fight with the aid of his two extraordinary followers: dressed in identical, tough, tight-fitting leather suits, looking like amalgams of Emma Peel and Xena, played by the professional dancers, siblings Jessica and Megan Kennedy, they appeared as decisive, dedicated servants of the Prince, the physical embodiment of his impatience and refusal to take squabbles lightly. Irrepressible, they energetically and quickly subdued the rage of every stray Capulet and Montague, through force, not through attentive care. This Prince was too bored and tired of the historical conflict to pay even lip service to nuanced policing.

  4. Before Juliet rebelled against her overbearing, fashion and appearance-obsessed mother, the domestic life of the Capulets was rather more serene – at least on the top of the scaffolding, which now served as the living quarters of the family’s women. Juliet was, at this stage of the play, a ‘girlie’ girl: she wore dresses, skipped along and wore her hair long. Enthused about the thought of the forthcoming masquerade and experiencing clear sexual feelings that she had hitherto not experienced, Juliet (who really did look 14 at times) begged the Nurse for little concessions of information from the adult world. Coy, mock-aloof and larger-than-life, Anita Reeves’ Nurse proved to be the most popular character in the play. Hilariously talkative and unapologetically nosey, the Nurse became taciturn and provocatively quiet when pressed for information, even suggestively licking a lollipop when Juliet asked her thinly-veiled questions about love and sex. Capulet was as grim as the Nurse was playful. His capacity for swift violence was displayed early on: whilst getting a wet shave, he punched without hesitation the attending lackey merely for nicking him on the cheek.

  5. Aspects of the party scene exemplify the production’s desire to inspire (but not patronise) the young people in the audience: it was more of a rave than a masquerade. The stage became swathed in seductive pink lights as a DJ enabled partygoers to dance earthily to one of Amy Winehouse’s more-upbeat numbers. The Kennedy sisters doubled up as anonymous party attendees in this scene: their impressive dancing and wilful display of provocative underwear suggested a possible undertone of sexual availability in this less-than-respectable household. The Nurse, as immobile as the Kennedy sisters were terpsichorean, provided enormous comic relief throughout the scene, lumbering around with elephantine abandon, hopelessly, hilariously, out of step with the pulsating rhythms of the DJ’s twelve-inch, 45rpm records?

  6. Aaron Monaghan’s Romeo was endearing through his youthful, almost-Tiggerish bounceability. Rarely standing still, he even tried to act out some of his verbal oxymorons: by jumping only so high, he somehow expressed perfectly the inherent contradiction of ‘heavy lightness’. Naïve and disinterested in the cares of societal division, he expressed his happy-go-lucky demeanour physically through almost protean, ever-changing postures. Meeting Juliet was, initially at least, just another harmless teenage adventure for him. Romeo’s age is not specified in the text: in this production, Romeo was as young as Juliet. Going to see the Apothecary was another little adventure for Romeo. The appearance of this potion dispenser caused huge (and slightly alarming) howls of amused recognition from the young audience: with his terse discourse, defensive body language and his pulled-up ‘hoodie’, this Apothecary was a typographical depiction of the stereotypical, grimy local drug dealer. Before this point, Romeo was often accompanied on his little adventures by Benvolio, who was played as a rather uninvolved character. Lacking a soul mate or even a life of his own, Benvolio was a somewhat melancholy spectator on other people’s lives.

  7. The audience, like Benvolio, wanted Romeo and Juliet’s supposedly transgressive love to succeed. Such a success would depend on the machinations of Friar Laurence – who was received warmly by the audience. Laurence, his benignity evident through his humble body language and his tactile nurture of his attractive, on-stage plants, cared evidently for the two young lovers as well as for his wider goal of salving the running wounds of the perennial Montague/Capulet squabble. The Catholic Church is either ignored or derided by most of Ireland’s young people, so it was refreshing to see Laurence neither demonised nor mocked. That said, it has long been fashionable to laugh at Catholic kitsch in Ireland – even before Father Ted. So, despite Laurence’s personal gracefulness, there was a great belly laugh when his outrageous pink neon Virgin Mary icon was revealed to the audience. In short, though, the audience was moved to hope that the Friar’s Pandarus-like scheme would work.

  8. The interval came at a moment of shock: the death of Mercutio. When wounded, the one-time party animal became a seething mass of bleeding, vituperative rhetoric. When the actor screamed to heaven looking for a plague to wipe out all the fighters he meant it. At his exact moment of death, a deluge of water began to pour out onto the stage from above. As well as a stunning piece of theatrical virtuosity by the Abbey’s technicians, the downpour, which continued throughout the interval, drenching the whole stage, served to wash away all the fun and facetiousness of the first half’s action. Despite the warmth of the Friar and the jollity of the aged Nurse, the post-interval scenes were played generally with a tone of sinister, ominous menace. Juliet changed demonstrably and quickly. In her later scenes she was no longer the ‘girlie’ girl of before. Now, she was rebellious, stroppy and defiant. A teenage rebel with a cause, she now wore leather and carried herself with a haughty, aloof gait – to all but Romeo. Paris was treated with disdain by Juliet. Harmless and honest, his awkwardness around his favoured girl was risible rather than endearing. He desperately planed an unwelcome kiss on Juliet’s head, receiving the sort of hostile, freezing reaction that can render a suitor impotent: Paris, courted by the points-scoring Lady Capulet, was just another gormless victim of the one-upmanship will always be one element of any feud: he was a sad, lonely victim of the discombobulation and moral void in Veronese society.

  9. Benvolio was another innocuous youth caught up in hostilities he cared little for. Ronan Leahy’s Benvolio continued to be quiet and reflective, never raising his voice nor straying far from Romeo’s side. For whatever reason (there was no campness nor overt homoeroticism about his performance) he maintained a one-sided devotion to Romeo. The action progressed towards its necessary ending of lamentation and woe. By Act Five there was nothing to laugh at – not even the histrionics of the haughty housewife, Lady Capulet, were amusing any more. A sense of great bitterness was established, one that conveyed the production’s straightforward reading of the play: that it is a disgrace that young people sometimes cannot love who they want to love. But there was one major surprise at the end of the play.

  10. The Prince orders the company to establish some sort of peace – or else. Normally in modern productions of Romeo and Juliet, the ‘reconciliation’ between Capulet and Montague is calculated rather than heartfelt, superficial rather than sincere. But in this production there was an extraordinary, visible thawing between the two erstwhile thugs. Capulet was ashamed of the mayhem that his family had caused – in the closing moments he restrained the rabid Tybalt in a more physical and aggressive way than any Montague had attempted. Capulet and Montague, now self-lacerating and disgusted with themselves, unexpectedly, heroically, joined with mutual enthusiasm in a long, long embrace, stunning the other characters and the audience. Coming just a few months after Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness had agreed to establish cross-community government of the North of Ireland in a still-unbelievable peace settlement, it seemed appropriate that the production of this conflict-set should end on a note of shocking peace. The production stressed the battle of the young against the middle-aged, so it was also pleasant to note how the young audience applauded the older cast members with the enthusiasm with which they cheered the younger actors. Anita Reeves – still jumping around in character as the busy-body Nurse, got the biggest cheers of all. The young audience stomped along to The Arctic Monkeys song that accompanied the curtain call, appreciating with vigour the gruelling work necessary for any energetic mounting of this play. Young and old were united in applause and mutual appreciation. The Abbey Theatre is committed to producing one Shakespeare play per year. Will many of the young people who were ‘made’ to see Romeo and Juliet want to return to see more Shakespeare plays? Definitely.

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© 2008-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).