I’ll admit I was more than a little sceptical about seeing Lost Dog’s Juliet and Romeo. Billed as “the real story of Romeo and Juliet”, this blend of dance and drama takes as its starting point the idea that Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers “didn’t die in a tragic misunderstanding” after all, but “grew up and lived happily ever after”; “well”, the blurb continues, “they lived at least”. I feared it would be gimmicky or, even worse, pretentious, that I’d spend the evening wishing I’d stayed in and re-watched Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet for the twenty-seventh time instead.
I needn’t have worried. This is a thoroughly refreshing and perceptive take on the world’s most overdone love story, at once funny, fond and devastating. The premise is that Juliet and Romeo, now in their forties, are seeking an alternative to couples’ counselling: call it theatre therapy. The pair relive significant memories from their lives together in front of an audience – “we tried it without you; it didn’t work”, quips Solene Weinachter’s Juliet – in an attempt to work through their marital problems. What follows is an all-too-short 75 minutes of vignettes which take us from the party where Romeo and Juliet first laid eyes on one another, to a flat in Paris to which the lovers joyfully elope, to a fraught and fractured family home complete with daughter, Sophie. Stunningly expressive contemporary dance duets are interspersed with original dialogue, as well as flashes of familiar Shakespearean verse which never feel out of place.
We discover early on that Juliet and Romeo remember their first encounter quite differently. When Romeo first saw Juliet across the dancefloor, The Beatles’ “I Want You” was blaring in the background, providing the soundtrack to a brilliantly awkward routine of exaggerated physical contortions by dancer and actor Ben Duke, as exuberant teenage lust battled with inhibiting shyness. For Juliet, by contrast, their romance was always tinged by an unbearable melancholy; as she remembers it, she first saw Romeo moving inexorably towards her through the crowd to the haunting melody of “Wild is the Wind”, sung by Cat Power. This difference, it becomes apparent, is at the root of their marital discord. For Juliet, as for generations of theatregoers, theirs is the archetypal love story, but Romeo is both reluctant and perennially unable to live up to her expectations. In Shakespeare’s play, Juliet is the more unflinchingly determined of the pair: it is Juliet who first proposes marriage; Juliet who risks being buried alive for the hope of reunion with Romeo; Juliet who, upon discovering that Romeo has left “no friendly drop” of poison “to help [her] after”, takes her own life with a dagger. Lost Dog’s Juliet and Romeo picks up on this dynamic and extrapolates it over more than twenty years of ordinary life. In a quirk both comic and desperately poignant, Juliet’s favourite pastime, whenever she and Romeo have fifteen minutes’ respite from the whims of their toddler, is to relive what she perceives to be the crowning achievement of their world-famous romance: the scene in the Capulet tomb, when both of them were prepared to die for love.
If I were inclined to quibble, I might observe that Romeo’s depiction is rather less familiar than Juliet’s. Lost Dog’s Romeo is repressed, emotionally inarticulate, uncomfortable with speaking his lines; he is a far cry from the cocky teenager who turns up at a party with half a sonnet ready as a chat-up line. But I’m willing to chalk this up to the toll taken by the intervening years. This production had so many highlights for me that there isn’t room to mention them all, but I would like to single out two here as exemplary of its tonal range. The first is Romeo’s long-suffering waltz with an unconscious Juliet to Des’ree’s “Kissing You”, the song made famous for sound-tracking the lovers’ first meeting in Lurhmann’s 1996 film of the play. Juliet insists that she remembers Romeo dancing with her in the tomb, and Romeo grudgingly agrees to re-enact this memory, lugging her comatose body around the stage in an absurd and ungainly duet which tramples over the song’s hallowed associations. Here, the cliché is utterly debunked, the romantic ideal exposed as a ridiculous and impractical fiction.
For me, though, the most powerful moment of the performance came some scenes later. Juliet has suffered a traumatic miscarriage, which represents the first and most damaging blow dealt to the couple’s happiness. Unable to reach out verbally, Romeo begins a kind of soft-shoe shuffle to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, and tentatively, gradually, Juliet joins in. This is a dance of sympathy and consolation, of two people making the best of an imperfect situation; it tells a very different kind of love story, giving new significance to a universally familiar song – a fresh take on a classic.
Those of us who stayed for the post-show talk with director and performer Ben Duke, performer Solene Weinachter, and Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Hertford College, Emma Smith, were treated to fascinating insights into the rehearsal process, as well as to reflections on the performance itself. During the discussion, Smith proposed that this kind of creative dramatic response might be the only way to engage emotionally with an original as clichéd and culturally loaded as Romeo and Juliet. Certainly, as I left the North Wall theatre following the performance, I agreed for perhaps the first time with Shakespeare’s famous closing couplet:
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.