The Making of Juliet & Romeo

I first saw Romeo and Juliet when I was a teenager. It was an RSC production. I knew as the show began that in about two hours they would be dead so I was reluctant to care about them.

Aged 14 I was starting to understand that it was not advisable to care for too many people. Empathy is not a limitless resource. We have to choose who we invest our emotions in. Invest wisely I say. This cautious approach is a characteristic I have evidently passed on to my children. My daughter didn’t want a gerbil as a pet because she’d heard on the grapevine that they kept dying. She wanted a tortoise. Here was a creature that had every chance of outliving its 6 year old owner, and so it would be the tortoise rather than my daughter who had to deal with the grief..

Romeo and Juliet were the theatrical equivalent of gerbils – their death was predictable and imminent and so it seemed best – however cute they were – to just withhold my affection for them and sit it out.

But they were good those RSC actors – and Shakespeare knows what he’s doing – so I was sucked in – I cared – I unwillingly handed over emotional energy. As humans we are, with notable exceptions, predisposed to it.

We don’t want the people we care for to die. I didn’t want Romeo and Juliet to die. I have seen subsequent productions in which I had the opposite feeling because the two leads were so annoying but in this, my first production, I wanted life. And there were so many opportunities for them to live. If only Romeo had got the message that Juliet sent, if only Juliet had drunk a few milligrams less of sleeping potion and so had woken up 30 seconds earlier, if only Paris had been better at sword fighting and so had delayed Romeo’s entrance by a minute or two. If only, if only. As audience we had to witness just how close they sailed to staying alive, and I found that almost unbearable.

So this piece came from a long standing dislike of death and a dawning realisation that in my job I was perfectly placed to re-write this moment that had frustrated me for so long. I wanted Romeo and Juliet to live, and that was our starting point. Initially it was exhilarating, anything was possible, where would they go, how would they live? We were overwhelmed with the possibilities.

And then gradually things got harder. The problem with cheating death is that then you have to carry on living. According to the experts the chemical cocktail that we experience as romantic love only lasts for 3 years. During those three years there is a gradual fall from the ideal to the real. And Romeo and Juliet had a particularly long way to fall. I was interested in this second part of their relationship, the bit after romantic love that was intrinsically less dramatic, more mundane and more repetitive. If their early passion was in part fed by the intransigence of their warring families then what kind of relationship grows from the daily struggle to get a buggy up 5 flights of stairs?

The creative process somehow mirrored this fall into the ordinary. We began with a lightness and optimism which allowed us to play with Shakespeare’s story and to find the ridiculous in this supposed tragedy. We spent a great deal of time consuming as many versions of the story as we could find in particular Macmillan’s and Nureyev’s ballets and Zeffirelli’s and Lurhman’s films and allowed these multiple versions to confuse themselves in our brain. And then we got stuck. There was much sitting in silence watching the changing light outside and realising that another day had passed with little progress.

I love the uncertainty of the devising process, there is something alchemical about it. But it is frustrating. There is no score to refer to and no script to pick up, just a lot of what can best be described as drifting. It often feels like failing, but without quite knowing against which bench mark I’m failing. I’m constantly reaching for things that ‘work’ and I can only really judge that from some kind of shifting unreliable instinct. There is a great deal that ends up on the cutting room floor. For example we spent a long time rehearsing a scene in which Romeo and Juliet get drunk with Shakespeare. We felt that this scene was somehow key to our understanding of their present situation, but it turned out to be a red herring, so we turned off the blaring music, stopped staggering around and felt a bit embarrassed. We created duets that had a physical logic but didn’t seem to say anything, so they also had to go. But as Geoffrey Rush’s character says in Shakespeare in Love ‘the natural condition of the theatre business is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster,’ and I think, like most people involved in creating work, I am slightly addicted to that feeling of imminent disaster while also holding onto the belief that ‘It will all turn out well.’

You are probably reading this in that dead time before the show begins so you are not yet in a position to judge if it turns out well. And I wouldn’t want to lead you on that one. It’s shorter than the original I’ll say that much for it. I would also say, as a general rule, Lost Dog work has been getting better so if this is your first Lost Dog show you’ve chosen a good moment to discover our work and if you don’t like this show try coming back to us in a couple of years.

Lost Dog was formed in 2004 by myself and Raquel Meseguer. We were students at the London Contemporary Dance School. The name came from the idea of a mongrel. The mongrel is a dog who has lost track of its heritage. It is not a pure breed, or even a cross breed it is its own thing, made up of bits of God knows what. We wanted to make mongrel work. It didn’t feel particularly cutting edge to us, actually it felt quite old fashioned because what we were interested in doing was using whatever we felt was right (and achievable within our limited skill set) to tell a story. The story was the thing. And still is.

It’s possible that life is in essence senseless and without meaning. That worries me. As you have seen from my denial of death I am expert at hiding from uncomfortable truths so I have found a career that allows me to give shape and meaning to life through the telling of stories. And what I accidentally discovered, although I’m sure I wasn’t the first, was that when stories are told communally they do an extraordinary thing: they allow us to get out of our heads, to let go of our superior intellect, and our irreconcilable views, and to drop into our emotional selves. It is an unfamiliar place, one in which I feel the nerve-wracking opportunity for connection and recognition. Being English I don’t want to make too much of this. I don’t want to hold hands or make eye contact or anything like that. In fact I want to sit in the dark of the theatre pretending I’m by myself…but also knowing that I’m not. It is the potential for that shared experience that makes me want to go the theatre.

From the beginning of Lost Dog I was interested in creating this kind of experience. Whether the work is classified as dance or theatre doesn’t feel that important but inside the process we spend many hours wrestling with these two intertwined ideas, marvelling at how close and how different they are, and convinced that the truth of the human condition sits somewhere between the two.

So here is Juliet and Romeo told in the technicolour of words and movement – a death defying, life affirming, alchemical experiment in turning gerbils into tortoises and re-shaping this iconic story of love and death into something far more ordinary.

This article by Ben Duke first appeared in the programme for Juliet & Romeo at the Royal Opera House Linbury Theatre – 13 and 14 April 2019.