Director Neil Barlett discusses his 2008 production as he was just beginning to cast the actors.

Director Neil Bartlett in rehearsals.
© RSC – Image Licensing

At its very simplest level Romeo and Juliet is a powerful love story. What other key themes are you looking to bring to the fore?
I think Romeo and Juliet is one of the great plays about family - in particular, about how families can stifle and damage their children even while they believe and claim that they are loving them. And it's a great play about how a world which only values young women when they 'behave' and young men when they don't is a world doomed to repeat its mistakes forever. 

Some of your previous productions have involved cross gender casting, will you be doing this with Romeo and Juliet?
Casting this play is thrilling - there are no dull parts! And the task is to find actors who can make you see afresh characters who a lot of people think they already know. Unlike Shakespeare, who wrote the part of Juliet for a young man, I'm going to cast a young woman.

In some of his plays (like Twelfth Night, which I did last year for the RSC with men playing women and women playing men) he is especially interesting in foregrounding the comedy and the eroticism of the confusions that cross-dressing on stage is so good at creating - things which he and his audience both clearly loved. But in Romeo and Juliet the energy of the play comes from the fact that the division of the sexes is rigid, conventional, well-policed, watched over buy the forces of Family and Church and so this time I'm going to do something which would have shocked an Elizabethan audience rigid - give the women's parts to women!

Can you tell us a bit more about the design for the costumes and set?
Romeo and Juliet is very much a play about Italy - the world of the play is very Catholic, very patriarchal, full of references to mid-day heat and short Italian tempers.

My designer Kandis Cook and I have been looking at the early films of Visconti and Pasolini and Fellini, and of course at Coppola's Italy in the Godfather trilogy. There is something about the clothes of 1940s and 50s Italy that seems very right; very sexy yet proper for the women, very macho for the men, all very conservative and repressed, both very body-denying and body-revealing. So the Nurse is going to look like an Italian widow, the Friar like a Catholic priest, the young men like the kind of sharp-suited boys in sunglasses you still see in the pavement cafes of Milan, Rome and Verona.

As for the set: the story of Romeo and Juliet has to go like a train, so you don't want to wait around for scene changes. The scenery is all in the words anyway. We're going to do it on a bare, open stage, creating all the locations with just a bed, a ladder and a few chairs and changing the atmosphere with just lights and music.

Did I mention that there's going to be a seven-musician-strong Italian fiesta band joining the company of 23 actors on stage..?

We hear you're experimenting with the choreography for the fight scenes and are not using swords...
Romeo and Juliet isn't a play about how sexy or entertaining violence is - it shows you how, step by dreadful step, male rivalry and machismo can, in just a few minutes, lead to a blade ripping into someone's body.

Because of the period we're putting the play in, the men will be carrying knives, rather than waving swords around. When you carry a knife, it colours the whole way you move, as well as the way you think and act. So I've asked my fight director Alison de Burgh to start with those ideas - not to think of the fights as swashbuckling interludes, but to make us really see the how and the why of violence erupting into daily life. It's pretty shocking - there's blood on the floor within minutes of the curtain going up.

Romeo and Juliet is one of Shakespeare's most well loved plays. Why do you think it has this enduring appeal?
People talk a lot about Romeo and Juliet being 'universal' - well, yes, all of us die, and all of us love, and all of us grieve - and Shakespeare finds words and images for those things that can speak directly to all sorts of people. But the play is actually about some very particular things, and it just so happens that with regard to these particular things the world hasn't changed so much since the year the play was written as we like to think.

We still tend to reward and value daughters when they 'behave', and reward and value boys when they misbehave. We still live in a culture where the values of patriarchy and religion - as expressed in the power of men over women, the power of families over their children - still conspire to stifle and damage just when they claim to love and nurture. Or, as Phillip Larkin put it so much more succinctly, "They f**k you up, your mum and dad; they don't mean to, but they do".

All of the parents and parent surrogates in the play believe they are doing the right thing - so why is it that the play ends with a city grieving over the corpses of two suicidal teenagers? We still don't have an answer to that question.

Have you directed the play before? Does it hold a particular appeal for you?
Romeo and Juliet was one of the first plays I directed during my time as Artistic Director of the Lyric Hammersmith - that was 15 years ago. I had fewer that half the number of performers I've got this time, and no money for set or costumes!

I think I love the play even more now than I did then. Perhaps now I can see the story from both sides of the generation divide - the cruelty, and the pathos, of the way the older people in the play are portrayed is astonishing.

But maybe, ultimately, I love it because I can still remember exactly what it feels like to be a teenager desperate to get your hands on someone, and knowing that that is forbidden, and I think there are moments in this play that speak about that feeling better than almost anything else.

Most people know how the play ends – how will you deal with this as a director?
Everyone knows how the play ends - but they always did, because Shakespeare tells you how the play ends right at the very beginning, in the famous opening chorus:
'Two households, both alike in dignity...."
He tells you that the lovers are going to die, that the vendetta between the two families is about the claim two new and innocent victims. So the play isn't about what is going to happen to these two beautiful young people; it is about how it happens - and, even more, about why it happens.

The Prince says, at the very end of the play, that the people of Verona should go away and talk about what has happened, about who should be punished and who forgiven now that the tragedy has happened. He means us, of course. We're the ones who need to talk. Tell the story with passion and clarity - and let the audience do the rest. That's my approach.

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