A director’s role in producing a play is much more than telling the actors where to stand or what to say. It is to enable the actors to make a particular interpretation of the text clear to the audience. To do this a director has a number of dramatic tools at his or her disposal, such as the actors’ body language, facial expressions, the position of actors in relation to each other, the way they actually deliver the lines. All of these convey emotions and meanings beyond the words on the page. They bring the words on the page alive to the audience. Similarly, a director can use set design, lighting and costume to signify a range of ideas and emotions which lie beneath the written language.
I have chosen to direct Act 3 Scene 1 as this is arguably the most important scene in the play. In this scene we lose two major characters, when Tybalt slays Mercutio and Romeo kills Tybalt. We also become aware of the contrast between light and dark as the mood of the plays shifts to become much more serious and brooding.
I want to set the play in its original setting, sixteenth century Verona, because some aspects of the scene would be more controversial or dangerous in that context. For instance, when Tybalt and Mercutio are exchanging insults, Tybalt accuses Mercutio of ‘consorting’ with Romeo. In the time when Shakespeare wrote this play, homosexuality was still very forbidden and secret, compared to present times.
A sophisticated modern audience would be able to recognise the seriousness of such an insult and realise the potential danger of this exchange between these two men. This, then, introduces a certain tension to the play.
Much can be conveyed to an audience through the use of body language and the positioning of the actors, or proxemics of the play. At the beginning of the scene, when the Capulets confront Mercutio and the Montagues, I want the Montagues to be looking very nervous, and avoiding eye contact with the Capulets, because last time they met there had been a violent skirmish and they had been threatened with their lives. When Tybalt confronts Mercutio, Tybalt will appear to be very aggressive but will stay close to his friends and he’ll be constantly glancing at them. The fact that he stays close to his peers, and needs to see their reactions, will let the audience understand that Tybalt is a lot less confident than he pretends to be, and that he needs the reassurance of his companions.
Throughout the encounter Shakespeare gives Mercutio lines which appear to be very casual:
‘By my heel, I care not”
I want him to exaggerate these in a very patronising way, to give people the idea that he feels completely secure in his political immunity from the gang wars, because of his connections with the Prince of Verona.
When Tybalt is challenging Romeo to a duel and Romeo is backing down, I will direct the actor playing Romeo to stay very close to the ground, perhaps kneeling, in order to reduce himself in front of Tybalt as much as he can. This will show the audience how much he wants to avoid a confrontation, because his marriage to Juliet means that Tybalt is now his cousin and honour demands that he can’t harm him. The actor playing Tybalt should show him almost enjoying this sense of superiority. He should be deliberately broadening his chest and standing tall to show how he feels powerful, very much like a modern school bully.
To create a contrasting effect, when Tybalt is confronting Mercutio, Mercutio will stay seated. Ironically, this will show the audience how secure Mercutio feels. In Shakespearean times, honour was a hugely important part of any high status gentleman’s life and to deliberately stay lower than an adversary during a confrontation would be almost like conceding, or withdrawing, from a fight. However, by remaining seated Mercutio is actually signalling the opposite, that he feels secure and doesn’t really feel in any danger.
At the beginning of the scene when Mercutio says
‘And but one word with one of us? Couple it with something, make it a word and a blow”
He’ll be speaking in a very flippant voice, patronising Tybalt and deliberately trying to antagonise him, like the scene in ‘Taxi Driver’ when Robert de Niro repeatedly says to his reflection ‘You talking to me?’ This will show the audience that Mercutio is trying to encourage a fight and will make him appear slightly more like Tybalt in the sense that he likes to stir things up.
Right at the beginning of the scene when Benvolio is warning him that they should leave, Mercutio teases him,
‘…thou wilt quarrel with a man for cracking nuts, having no other reason but because thou hast hazel eyes…”
He should say this quite quickly but in a light hearted manner, to let the audience know that it is simply friendly teasing and not serious. I would want the actor to draw attention to the pun on ‘nuts’ by adopting a knowing facial expression.
The proxemics of a performance, in other words the positioning and movement of the actors on the stage, can show how an actor is feeling, particularly his or her attitude towards another character. It can also reveal how people can do things at a sub-conscious level. As I have said earlier I want the audience to see Tybalt staying very close to his peers when he is talking to Mercutio. This will show them his true insecurity and his need for the reassurance of his friends: the implication being that this is the behaviour of a bully. On the other hand I want Mercutio to move around very quickly. When he is saying:
‘Could you not take some occasion
I want him to be running around the stage in a very outrageous manner, maybe even spinning around. This could show the audience one of two things: either that he is very confident and just want to annoy Tybalt, or, preferably, that he is not at ease with the situation and does not want to make himself vulnerable by standing in one place. This is not necessarily what Shakespeare might originally have intended, but it is the director’s role to depict the script according to his, or her, interpretation, and that is what I am doing here.
During this scene I would want the stage to be divided into three groupings of characters. On one side I want the Capulets to be standing in a scattered formation. This will show the audience that they are not particularly close emotionally and that they feel confident and superior. On the other side of the stage will be the Montagues. They will be clumped together, almost like a herd, to show that they feel more secure when they are physically close together and also to show that they are adopting a very defensive formation and that they do not really want to fight. Between the two families will be Mercutio. This positioning will show that he does not really have a side but is simply adopting the opinion of the Montagues for the sake of a fight. We would probably see similar behaviour from aggressive young men on a Saturday night after the pubs have closed in the centre of Leicester.
Finally, a director has at his or her disposal the design of the production, the costumes, the set design, the make up and the lighting, all of which are powerful signifiers of meaning which can highlight aspects of a character’s personality and enhance the mood of the scene.
In most versions of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ the Capulets and the Montagues are given differently themed costumes. In the Baz Lurhman film, for example, the Capulets wear black leather and the Montagues wear bright, flowery shirts. This serves to symbolise the contrasting ideas of light and darkness. In my version I want both families to wear similar clothes. This will show the audience that in fact the warring families share more similarities than differences. They are both characterised by obstinacy, an exaggerated sense of honour and a desire to protect their family name.
I want the set to be extremely simple so that the main focus of the play is on the characters and Shakespeare’s language. I want the lighting to mirror the moods of light and dark. For example when Mercutio and Benvolio are talking I want the lighting to be very bright, and focused on Mercutio, to reflect the lightness of his mood. However, when Tybalt is confronting Romeo I want the light to slowly get darker in order to change the mood. When Mercutio is killed the light will suddenly change to blood red, to signify death and passion. In Shakespearian times, frequently, when a character was killed they would stagger off stage to die, however in order to emphasise the horrific nature of the murder I want the audience to see Mercutio die, just before the light is totally eclipsed.
There are many elements in the play which still speak to a modern audience. The war between two rich Italian families is a reflection of present day family wars with the Italian Mafia; both are driven by honour and love of their family name. In addition, the play reflects other oppositions: black versus white, Palestinian versus Israeli, Protestant versus Catholic. The theme of young love is both timeless and universal, appealing to audiences across the world, as can be seen by the popularity of the Baz Lurhman film and the fact that the play continues to be performed three hundred years after it was written.
This essay explores my interpretation of this scene. If I was a director at the Royal Shakespeare Company, I might direct ‘Romeo and Juliet’ half a dozen times during my career. The fact that the play stands up to so many possible subtle interpretations confirms the greatness of Shakespeare’s writing and the creative ingenuity of stage direction.