A guide through the stage history of Romeo and Juliet from Shakespeare's time to the present day.

The Play

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 rear balcony provided Juliet's bedroom window and a trapdoor in the stage was her tomb. No scenery and few props allowed the action to move swiftly and the audience to focus on the 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 had great faith in the youth playing the important role of Juliet. 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.

Romeo_and_Juliet_1973_Romeo_lovingly_cradles_Juliet_believing_her_to_be_dead_Act_5_Scene_3._Reg_Wilson_c_RSC_142.o_2607_24a
Romeo and Juliet (1973), directed by Terry Hands. Romeo (Timothy Dalton) cradling Juliet's (Estelle Kohler) body, believing her to be dead.

After the Restoration

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 about 70 years. Otway's The History and Fall of Caius Marius set the action in ancient Rome, renaming the lovers Marius and Lavinia. It responded to the crisis over the English throne by placing greater emphasis on the political issues of state within the play.

In 1744, Theophilus Cibber played Romeo in a version closer to the original that retained some of Otway's additions, such as 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 just 14. Judging by contemporary comments, this did not go down too well with audiences.

Garrick's success

David Garrick's Romeo and Juliet, staged at Drury Lane in 1748, was a much greater success. Garrick removed many of Shakespeare's bawdy jokes and sexual references, reducing Mercutio's role and simplifying that of Juliet. Responding to his audience's taste, he kept the tear-jerking sentimentality of the lovers' final embraces. This version of the play became the standard text for the stage over the next century.

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 was felt to be better suited to the tragic 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. As one contemporary female theatregoer put it: "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!" The two productions remained regularly in the repertoire of both theatres (albeit with changes of cast) until the turn of the century.

Into the 19th century

Throughout the 19th 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-19th century, actresses were also allowed a crack at the male lead, showing how Romeo was seen to lack masculinity. 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 saw Romeo slew Paris in the churchyard before carrying his corpse down a flight of stairs where, by virtue of a seemingly miraculous scene change, he was revealed in the 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.

Romeo (David Tennant) falls in love with Juliet Alexandra Gilbreath) at the Capulets' ball.
Romeo (David Tennant) falls in love with Juliet (Alexandra Gilbreath) at the Capulets' ball.
Photo by Robert Workman © RSC Browse and license our images

The 1900s

The play remained very popular throughout the twentieth century. In the first decade of the century, William Poel led the Elizabethan Stage Society in its traditional staging of several of Shakespeare's plays, with a simple thrust stage for fast-paced fluid action. The pace and panache of John Gielgud's Romeo and Juliet 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 fascinated the audience. Recalling the rivalry between Barry and Garrick, Gielgud gained more praise for his poetic Romeo, while Olivier's Mercutio was admired for his virile energy.

In an influential production at the Old Vic in 1960, Franco Zeffirelli used his Italian background to create 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 over young people chatting, flirting and fighting. Their naturalistic style was wholly new to London audiences. The lovers were played by the young actors John Stride and Judi Dench.

For more on RSC stagings, see the Romeo and Juliet Timeline.

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 an exciting contemporary style for his film in 1996, with the young actors Clare Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio in the leading roles.

 


 

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