Set design, costumes and music

Romeo and Juliet (2008) Director Neil Bartlett in rehearsal. Photo by Ellie Kurttz © RSC

RSC Education Associate Practitioner Taryn Storey followed the rehearsal process of the RSC's 2008 production of Romeo and Juliet. Here she explains the design and music choices made by director Neil Bartlett and designer Kandis Cook.

Time and place

Why set the play in Italy in the mid 20th century? Director Neil Bartlett and designer Kandis Cook felt that Romeo and Juliet needed to be set in a 'violently conservative society', a world where tight, archaic, policed conformity was in the air that the characters breathed. They felt that Italy in the early- to mid-20th century was ideal because:

  • It was a place where family vendettas could affect the lives of everyone in a small town
  • It was a patriarchal society; a 'man's world' where young women are confined to live within the home but young men are free to do as they please
  • It represented the Catholicism of the play (where going to church is important and the language evokes saints and religious icons)

They decided to keep the setting to the middle of the 20th century, but not a particular place or time.

Set design

When thinking of the visual world of the play, the first question that Neil and Kandis asked was: Why would there be anything on stage? With an acting company of 23, plus seven musicians, the space could be filled easily with just people. But Neil explained that the action in Romeo and Juliet moves at an very fast pace, cutting from scene to scene and changing location rapidly. To accommodate the storytelling and the numbers of people on stage, they decided to have a bare stage. The bare brick wall at the back was designed to echo the chilly damp churches you might visit in Italy - at odds with the heat and light outside. In the balcony scene, Romeo climbs over the wall and into Juliet's orchard garden.

The only pieces of set were chairs and Juliet's bed - which was also used as the balcony where it represents a private space where Juliet feels she can be herself.

The last scene in the play which takes place in the Capulet tomb contained the only major set change - the back wall split and moved down-stage. Neil felt that this scene is different from the others because Shakespeare brings everyone into the space to face the consequences of their actions. Juliet lies dead on her bed, surrounded by high metal railings which Romeo smashed through to be with her.

Costumes

The world of Verona was created by the costuming in this production. Around the walls of the rehearsal room, Kandis stuck print-outs and copies of images from her sources of inspiration:

  • Italian movies of Visconti and Fellini
  • Italian fashion shows in the 1950s
  • Itatian weddings in the 1950s

In rehearsals, the actors were asked to look at these images and share something they had noticed about them. Some of the things they noted were:

  • The weight and quality of the clothing
  • How stark the images were - everything was highly contrasted black and white
  • Wealth and family were important
  • Everyone had poise
  • There was a flamboyance to the characters
  • No-one was smiling
  • The images showed both passion and respect

If you look at the Production Photo Gallery, you can see these inspirations reflected in the final style of the costumes and set.

Music

Neil wanted the seven-piece band to be an integral part of the storytelling. Inspired by the film The Godfather, Neil wanted to use music to punctuate the action with raucous rough, vigorous sound. The band were modelled on an Italian municipal marching band comprising: piccolo, clarinet/soprano, saxaphone, two trumpets, a trombone, a piano accordian and a bass drum.


Written by Taryn Storey © RSC
Photo by Ellie Kurttz shows director Neil Bartlett in rehearsals for the RSC's 2008 production of Romeo and Juliet © RSC

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