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Q&A with Romeo and Juliet director Tom Littler

Marlowe President Molly Yarn and Romeo and Juliet director Tom Littler spoke about this year's Arts Show production.

Molly: So, Tom, what speaks to you about Romeo and Juliet, and what drew you to direct it?

Tom: I’ve wanted to do this play for a while because I’ve sensed there’s a secret core to it that I’ve wanted to explore. It’s very dark, death-brushed – it’s of course extremely romantic, but there’s something about it that seems to say love is death. The Friar is very acute about that: ‘The earth that’s nature’s mother is her tomb / What is her burying grave, that is her womb.’ Interlocked. Romeo and Juliet can’t stop imagining each other dead. I wanted to find a world and a style to unlock that, which is what took me to Andalusia and flamenco.

Molly: So this is Andalusia in the 1930s, the Andalusia of Lorca? Is that a poetic response or about the location itself?

Tom: Yes – this is the Spain of Blood Wedding and Yerma. The sun and the moon, life and death, fertility and barrenness. It came from that bit of Capulet’s when he thinks Juliet has died: ‘Death is my son-in-law, Death is my heir.’ ‘We were born to die,’ says Lady Capulet. That made me think of Lorca. It’s intensely religious. Cool churches and hot plazas. I’ve been to Cordoba, to Granada, Seville, and it’s quite a remarkable region. There’s something fierce about it – landscape, people.

Molly: But it’s also the setting for Carmen, isn’t it? Were you thinking of that too?

Tom: Yes, of course. There’s a bit of Carmen herself about the Mercutio in our production, I think… and some of the complex sexual politics of that story.

Molly: So how specific is it? Do you imagine it in a particular year? Do you have real 1930s models for each of the Shakespeare characters?

Tom: That’s interesting. I do a lot of Shakespeare very specifically, embedding it precisely in its location, but this production has always felt more allusive and suggestive, like the works it is referencing. I’ve never pinned it down to a year or even town, though I guess it’s Cordoba, where the famous Mezquita is, which inspires the cathedral setting. Often I ask actors to do a lot of historical research; this felt more about tapping into a cultural world.

Molly: What’s the difference between the Montagues and the Capulets? Often they are portrayed as two great aristocratic families, but are you interested in something more culturally resonant?

Tom: I think it’s clear that there’s supposed to be some cultural difference between the two: ‘This by his voice should be a Montague.’ I don’t want to pretend this is social realism. It’s a way of accessing the emotional world of the play, but the Montagues reference the indigenous gitano, or Roma, population, while the Capulets are a more militaristic, aristocratic clan.

Molly: Well this play has been mapped onto many different cultural contexts, hasn’t it? The Israeli—Palestinian conflict, Apartheid-era South Africa, Cold War Europe, even Miami Beach!

Tom: Yes, I do see it as a peace play, or a play about the terrible cost of prejudice. The legacy of those deaths will be ‘a glooming peace’; there are to be statues of the lovers.

Molly: You said legacy – I wanted to ask you about a more specific legacy. This year, we are able to look back and trace how the Marlowe has influenced generations of British theatre-makers by dedicating this performance to the memory of our alumnus Sir Peter Hall, who died last year. You assisted him, and were an associate with the Peter Hall Company, you learned the Marlowe verse-style directly from him, and now, one hundred and ten years after the Society was founded to improve the quality of verse performance, you're teaching it to a new generation of Cambridge theatre-makers.

Tom: God, it’s a lot of pressure being seen as the conduit of that tradition. But when Peter talked sometimes he’d refer to a technique or a tip he’d picked up from someone of a prior generation, and they’d got it from, I don’t know, George Bernard Shaw, or Harley Granville Barker. We hand these things on, but make them our own. I find that aspect of theatre very moving.

Molly: What do you think Peter Hall’s legacy will be?

Tom: The list is enormous. Beckett, Pinter, Shaffer. The principles of a subsidised theatre. Previews. The Rose Kingston. The RSC. The National Theatre on the South Bank. I think one endangered part of his legacy is the seriousness with which the arts and culture need to be taken. In Peter’s world view culture was what set a country apart: what’s the point of acquiring wealth without it? In making – successfully – the economic case for the arts, we mustn’t lose sight of the necessity of funding culture for its own sake.

Molly: Do you feel in his debt?

Tom: Of course. He was my teacher, my mentor, my champion and my friend. I think about him a lot when I’m rehearsing, and when I’m running Jermyn Street Theatre – he always told me I ought to run buildings. There are a lot of us about who are deeply influenced by Peter – writers, directors, artistic directors, designers, countless actors, and his values live on in many theatre people. In different ways. My work is very different from his; I follow my own drum, and he always encouraged that.

Molly: He often spoke of his time in the Marlowe, learning the style of verse-speaking championed by his teacher Dadie Rylands, a style which Hall embraced and championed throughout his life, at the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre, and beyond. It’s even been called iambic fundamentalism! How would you characterise that technique?

Tom: You see, when Peter did it, it wasn’t very complicated. It’s about pulse; you play it like jazz. You remember where the line ends, and you don’t stop til you get there. You never lose the beat, but you play around it. But the thing to remember about Peter is that he was intensely musical. A line of Pinter or Beckett or Shakespeare or Shaw was music to him. You have to listen to the text, shut up and listen to it, and it’ll tell you what to do.

Romeo and Juliet will be on at the Cambridge Arts Theatre 24-27 February, 2018.

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