Like myself, the first contact most people would have had with the world of William Shakespeare was from their schooldays. I was studying English literature at secondary school and we `had’ to do a play! It was not something I was particularly looking forward to. The play we were going to study was a tragedy, entitled Romeo and Juliet about two young lovers whose deaths ultimately reconcile their feuding families! It did not look like I was going to enjoy this play.

A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life.
(Chorus, Prologue)

Juliet (Karen Fishwick) & Romeo (Bally Gill)

Unfortunately I was not able to go and watch a live performance of the play but to help me get to grips with the text and characters, my teachers screened the 1968 film adaptation by director Franco Zeffirelli starring the stunning Olivia Hussey as Juliet and Leonard Whiting as her co-star crossed lover. I absolutely loved the play and from that day forward I was hooked on Shakespeare.

O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
(Juliet, Act 2 Scene 1)

I recently went along to the RSC in Stratford Upon Avon to watch the latest offering of this classic directed by Erica Whyman, which is a modern version aimed at a new youthful audience, touching on the issues of the day, laddish masculine behaviour, multiculturalism, sexuality, gender equality and the sadly increasing issue of knife crime. I was visiting for a matinee performance so the auditorium was full of schoolchildren, no doubt studying the text back in school. Many of the young people looked and sounded extremely excited at the prospect of watching the play they were studying, performed live in such a fantastic auditorium, at the home of Shakespeare. They were not disappointed!


Parting is such sweet sorrow.
(Juliet, Act 2 Scene 1)

Tom Piper’s minimalist set is at the extreme, fair Verona has seen much better days! The adaptable set takes the form of a rotating, cube which becomes a balcony, the Friar’s cell and in the final scenes, a tomb. It is very effective, but strangely unremarkable and soulless. The loud, pounding beats and rhythms of modern dance music and guitars from a full band, created an exciting atmosphere to drive the scenes along. The kids up in the gods were shaking their heads in tune to the beats!

Mercutio (Charlotte Josephine) & Tybalt (Raphael Sowloe)

That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet.
(Juliet, Act 2 Scene 1)

Not only were the majority of the audience under sixteen years of age but the performing ensemble was also supplemented by the introduction on stage of several school children from across the country, dressed in what appeared to be their street clothes. The diverse multicultural cast strongly reflected the diversity of British modern society.

For this alliance may so happy prove,
To turn your households’ rancour to pure love.
(Friar Laurence, Act 2 Scene 2)


Whyman’s Romeo & Juliet presents women in five of the traditional male roles, including Mercutio interpreted superbly by Charlotte Josephine, as a tough, loudly spoken, confident crop haired tough, who is always ready for a fight. The flexibility in the gender roles pays off superbly in the casting of Beth Cordingly as the angry Veronese prince, Escalus, who scolds the quarrelling men of her city for their macho behaviour. It may have caused a little confusion for the watching schoolchildren but I am sure it would have led to a great deal of interesting discussion back at school in the classroom.

For this alliance may so happy prove,
To turn your households’ rancour to pure love.
(Friar Laurence, Act 2 Scene 2)

Romeo & Juliet

There were two hugely accomplished performances from Karen Fishwick and Bally Gill as the star-crossed lovers. Fishwick comes across as an extremely strong-willed Juliet, very convincing as a 14-year-old teenager, with a mellow Scottish accent. Like many teens, she can be sulky, moody and grouchy when things don’t happen as quickly as she would like them too. Gill as Romeo exudes plenty of charm and moves about the stage with a confident swagger. He is an impulsive young hothead but there is a gentleness and warmth to his character. They are an engaging couple but happiness is far too brief for them as fate condemns their brief love to tragedy.

For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.
(Prince, Act 5 Scene 3)

Romeo (Bally Gill)

Many other roles are also strongly played including Ishia Bennison as the Nurse who soaks up most of the laughs, and surprisingly there were many and Michael Hodgson as Capulet, represented as a violent and abusive figure seen particularly during the scene when he discovers his daughter Juliet is not happy at being told to marry Paris. I began to fear for Juliet as his anger escalates throughout the scene. His frightened down trodden wife, Lady Capulet emphasises the fear both women have of the domineering male in the family.

Hang thee, young baggage, disobedient wretch!
I tell thee what: get thee to church o’Thursday,
Or never after look me in the face.
(Capulet, Act 3 Scene 5)

Andrew French is excellent as the hugely convincing and well versed Friar Laurence and Josh Finan sparkles as Benvolio when he appears to be completely ` head over heels` besotted with Romeo.

Tybalt (Raphael Sowole)

All are punished.
(Prince, Act 5 Scene 3)

Much of the cast wear contemporary outfits in shades of black and grey, decorated by daggers and sheaths! Romeos associates are a group of immature juveniles, similar to those that loiter around city centres late in the evening, with very little direction or purpose. The awful characteristic feature, as in some parts of Britain today, is that the essential companion for some of them, is a knife! This is a play essentially now about the tragedy of youth.

These violent delights have violent ends.
(Friar Laurence, Act 2 Scene 5)

The result is a fast moving, energetic show that went down incredibly well with the predominately youthful audience. I simply loved it! I am quite sure many of the school children went away expressing the same view and next weeks English Literature lessons are going to be full of important and expressive questions.

O happy dagger,
This is thy sheath: there rust, and let me die.
(Juliet, Act 5 Scene 3)

Romeo and Juliet is at Stratford RSC until September 21.


It will be broadcast live at selected cinemas on July 18.

The Ben Kinsella Trust

Ben Kinsella was tragically murdered in Islington in June 2008. The Ben Kinsella Trust was setup by Ben’s family shortly after his murder to campaign against knife crime and to educate young people about the dangers of carrying a crime.