Thanks to the visionary directors Baz Luhrmann and Franco Zeffirelli, many feel like they have seen Romeo and Juliet many times.
Their film productions of Shakespeare’s achingly beautiful play are a staple of school pupils to this day, so many will have memories of having seen the story.
I have seen it performed on stage several times, so I am surprised when Jonathan Humphreys tells me that the play has not been performed in Sheffield for over twenty years. In that case, it’s clearly time to give audiences another chance to see one of the greatest love stories ever written. Humphreys is the young director whose work has become familiar to audiences in Sheffield, with his productions of Boeing Boeing, The Village Bike and Happy Days having been staged in the city in recent years. This is the first time he’s had his hands on a classic as epic as Shakespeare’s tragedy of young love.
In the past few years Sheffield has opened their autumn season with a big Shakespeare production. Audiences have been treated to a spectacular Macbeth, John Simm in Hamlet and Dominic West and Clarke Peters in Othello. Now Humphreys has a cast including Freddie Fox and Morfydd Clark bringing to life the story of Shakespeare’s passionate young lovers.
“It’s a massive privilege to be given this big season opening production,” says Humphreys. “As a director you’re not thinking about the whole season – you’re thinking about your show, but it is a great privilege to be doing this at a theatre that I admire so much.”
It’s not just about the theatre for Humphreys. He’s also excited, he says, to be sharing this particular play with audiences.
“The fact that it’s not been here for 20 years means there are two generations of people who haven’t had a chance to see this play on the stage here. That’s an incredibly exciting prospect.”
While people haven’t been able to see the play in Sheffield, the truth is there have been several in the region in the last couple of decades and even if audiences haven’t seen it live on stage, Humphreys has to tackle the fact that people know the play well – even if only from studying it at school.
“The starting point is to make it live in the present tense. If you accept that everyone has seen some version of it, then how do you make your production different is the question you have to answer for yourself,” says Humphreys. “I think one of the reasons the play resonates so much is because it’s a play that isn’t about kings and queens, it’s about relatively ordinary people. It feels like it’s Shakespeare’s attempt to create something that has an epic tragic intensity with essentially what were the middle classes.”
Although this is the first Shakespeare play Humphreys has directed, he has clearly thought long and hard about what the Bard was doing with this piece.
“I think the play articulates the thing that very few plays have been able to successfully do and that is the moment of first love in your youth that completely consumes you and sears itself into your memory for life,” he says.
“But the reason I think it is a masterpiece is because I believe it is a metaphor –everyone’s life and everyone’s relationships are marked by death. He condenses that metaphor into a couple of hours in this incredibly fast- moving play.”
With Fox and Clark as his eponymous tragic heroes, Humphreys has two hot young stars for his production. Fox is of course a member of a truly great British acting dynasty – his parents are Edward Fox and Joanna Davis and his sister is Emilia Fox, while Clark was recently in ITV’s Arthur and George and in the film The Falling. Humphreys says it’s dream casting.
“For me the most extraordinary thing about the play is is not necessarily the language, the iambic pentameter, the form. He does these amazing things where the audience is completely immersed in a scene then a character and turns to talk to the audience. His mastery of the form in this is incredible, and that has lead me to think about the power of creating this with a largely bare stage. To make that work you have to have brilliant actors and Freddie was absolutely at the top of my list to play Romeo. The hurdle you have to get over is to make sure it doesn’t turn into a dirge about young love and the way you avoid that is to have a Romeo who has a lot of wit and passion. Romeo’s arc through the play is massive and I just knew that Freddie had the ability to play that.
“Morfydd I met through my casting director and she has a remarkable quality. Together they are a powerful pair.”
• The Crucible theatre is hosting a series events around the production of Romeo and Juliet.
On October the theatre is holding a Talkback following the 7.30pm performance, when the cast and creative team will take questions on the production.
On September 30 from 10am a page-to-stage event, open to the public, will allow people to hear the creative team analyse the production and allow audiences to bring their ideas to the stage in an interactive masterclass.
• Romeo and Juliet, Sheffield Crucible, to October 17. Tickets 0114 2496000.