Stage history

Romeo and Juliet (1973) Romeo (Timothy Dalton) cradling Juliet's (Estelle Kohler) body, believing her to be dead. Photo by Reg Wilson © Reg Wilson Collection

Performance history expert Rebecca Brown guides us through the stage history of Romeo and Juliet from the time Shakespeare wrote it to the present day.


As the title page of the play's 1597 edition tells us, Romeo and Juliet was a popular success in its day: '...it hath been often (with great applause) plaid publiquely'. Shakespeare designed it to be played in daylight on the simple thrust stage of an Elizabethan playhouse, where the balcony at the rear of the stage provided Juliet's bedroom window and a trapdoor in the stage was her tomb. No scenery and a minimum of props allowed the action to move swiftly and the audience to focus on the richly evocative language. Music and costume added to the effect.

Shakespeare wrote his plays with the strengths and talents of his fellow players in mind. His gifted boy players took the female roles and Shakespeare must have been confident of the youth playing Juliet to entrust to him so much of the play's chance of success. We know that Peter, the Nurse's comic servant, was played by the popular comedian Will Kemp and the male tragic lead must have been played by the expert wielder of both sword and poetry, Richard Burbage.

The play had a brief run on the London stage immediately after the restoration of Charles II when in 1662 the actor-manager William Davenant presented it at Lincoln's Inn Fields. Much greater success was won by Thomas Otway's adaptation in 1679, which was the only version of the play to be seen on stage for the next 70 years or so. Otway's The History and Fall of Caius Marius set the action in ancient Rome, renaming the lovers Marius and Lavinia. In placing greater emphasis on the political issues of state, Otway was responding to the contemporary crisis in England over the succession to the throne. In 1744, Theophilus Cibber played Romeo in a version closer to the original but still retaining some of Otway's additions, notably that of Juliet waking before Romeo dies. Bits of Shakespeare's The Two Gentlemen of Verona were also thrown in for good measure. This production boasted the unusual casting of father and daughter in the title roles – he in his early forties, she a tender 14. Judging by contemporary comments, this did not go down too well with audiences.

David Garrick's Romeo and Juliet, staged at Drury Lane in 1748, was a much greater success. Garrick purified Shakespeare's original, removing many of its bawdy jokes and sexual references, thus reducing Mercutio's role and simplifying that of Juliet. Garrick's understanding of his audience's taste ensured that he kept the tear-jerking sentimentality of the lovers' final embraces before death. His version of the play established itself as the standard text for the stage for the next 100 years or so.

When Spranger Barry, Garrick's Romeo, decamped with his Juliet (Susannah Cibber) to a rival production in Covent Garden, Garrick himself took on the role at Drury Lane. Barry was more praised as an ardent lover while Garrick's passionate vein of tragedy was felt to be better suited other aspects of the role. Audiences could have their cake and eat it too by enjoying Barry at Covent Garden for the first half of the play before heading off to Drury Lane to see Garrick die tragically in the second. One contemporary female theatregoer put it like this:
"Had I been Garrick's Juliet – so impassioned was he, I should have expected that he would have come up to me on the balcony; but had I been Juliet to Barry's Romeo – so tender and seductive was he, I should certainly have jumped down to him!"
Audiences had plenty of opportunity to enjoy the two productions, which remained regularly in the repertoire of both theatres (albeit with changes of cast) until the turn of the century.

Throughout the nineteenth century, the role of Juliet was seen as an important marker of a young actress's claim to fame. Eliza O' Neill, Helen Faucit and Fanny Kemble all won praise in the part. In the mid-nineteenth century, actresses were also allowed a crack at the male lead, which tells us something of the perceived lack of machismo in the role at that time. The most successful of these female Romeos was the American Charlotte Cushman, who, partnered by her sister, Susan, was a huge hit.

In 1882, Henry Irving and Ellen Terry took the lead roles in a celebrated production at the Lyceum, which delighted the audience with its lavishly Italianate settings, processions and crowd scenes. The most jaw-dropping sequence was that in which Romeo slew Paris in the churchyard and then carried his corpse down a flight of stairs where, by virtue of a seemingly miraculous scene change, he was revealed in the sepulchral gloom of a Gothic crypt. At the end of the century, the management of the Lyceum was taken over by Johnston Forbes-Robertson, who was highly praised as a graceful and romantic Romeo in his own production of the play.

The play has remained very popular throughout the twentieth century. In the first decade of the century, William Poel led the Elizabethan Stage Society in its staging of several of Shakespeare's plays, including Romeo and Juliet, in playing conditions corresponding to those of an Elizabethan stage, with a simple thrust stage allowing fast-paced fluid action. The pace and panache of John Gielgud's production in 1935 at the New Theatre made the critics take note and admire the simple Italian Renaissance setting and the excellence of the performances. Peggy Aschroft played Juliet and Edith Evans the Nurse - both to great acclaim - but it was the alternating of the roles of Romeo and Mercutio by Gielgud and Laurence Olivier that really riveted the attention. Recalling the comparisons drawn between Barry and Garrick, this new rivalry showcased the poetic sonorousness of Gielgud (more highly praised as Romeo), and the virile energy of Olivier (more praised as Mercutio).

In an influential production at the Old Vic in 1960, Franco Zeffirelli used his own Italian background to good effect in creating a breathtakingly real atmosphere of Italian street life. The curtain rose to reveal the housewives of Verona shaking their newly-washed sheets out from their balconies beneath which young people were chatting, flirting and fighting in a naturalistic style which was then wholly new to London audiences. The lovers were played by the young actors, John Stride and Judi Dench.

For more on RSC stagings of Romeo and Juliet, see Productions 1947 - 2008 »

Musicals

The story of Romeo and Juliet has inspired many musical responses by composers such as Bellini, Berlioz, Gounod and Tchaikovsky. Kenneth MacMillan choreographed a ballet to Prokofiev's music and this was premiered at Covent Garden in 1964, with Rudolph Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn in the title roles. Since then it has become a much–loved part of the ballet repertoire. Leonard Bernstein's 1957 West Side Story (lyrics by Stephen Sondheim) was a hugely successful musical version updated to 1950s New York, where the feud was fought out between the street gangs of the Sharks and the Jets. It was filmed in 1961.

Films

There have been many film versions of the play. Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer were rather too mature in years for their casting as the lovers in George Cukor's 1936 film. The young and beautiful actors, Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting, were much more appropriately cast in Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 film, shot on location in the sun-drenched piazzas of Italy. Baz Luhrmann came up with a joltingly exciting contemporary style for his film in 1996, with the young actors Clare Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio in the leading roles.


RSC productions of Romeo and Juliet from 1947 to 2010 »

Photo by Reg Wilson shows Romeo (Timothy Dalton) cradling Juliet's (Estelle Kohler) body, believing her to be dead in the RSC's 1973 production © Reg Wilson Collection

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