It’s not often that we get the opportunity to see an actor from Shakespeare’s Globe in London here in Cincinnati, Ohio, but we had that opportunity today. Cincinnati Shakespeare Company invited Scott Brooksbank from the Globe to present interactive retellings of Romeo & Juliet and Macbeth. I was fortunate enough to attend one of the tellings of Romeo & Juliet, and it was even better than expected. Brooksbank presented this well-known tale in a way that made it accessible and deeply personal. He flawlessly transitioned into and out of 8 different characters (including different accents) and brought the story new life for everyone in the audience.
We sat on the stage in a semi-circle in front of him. He started by asking the audience for a series of items that he could use to signify each character. My pink rain jacket was worn for Friar Laurence. A butterfly umbrella for the nurse. A green hat for Benvolio. A purse for Paris, which I particularly enjoyed. A frozen storybook for the Capulet servant. A set of keys on a lanyard for Balthazar. A tan, rain dampened sweater for the musician. And finally, a green sweater for Sampson.
I knew this was going to be an experience unlike any other when he started asking us to hum. Three sections hummed at three different pitches as he donned the pink jacket and knelt down in front of an empty chair. The audience was immediately transported to the friary, where Friar Laurence was in prayer. This was his first excellent use of pause to set the scene and the mood. He slowly got up and began the story. “To houses both alike in dignity, in fair Verona where we set our scene.” It was a speech we were all familiar with, but instead of continuing with the well-known speech, he broke off and started speaking to us simply as Friar Laurence. Here to tell the story of Romeo and Juliet.
This is when Sampson came forth with his cockney accent and explained how the first fight started while he gave a little background on what it was like to be a part of the Capulet/Montague feud. He gave the character amazing depth for the few moments we saw Sampson on stage. Before the fight was over, Benvolio came forward. This pattern continued like a montage of witnesses telling us what they had seen at the end of a crime drama.
It was more than that though. Each character would lend their own voice, their own experience to each plot point and that made the story engaging and deeply personal. You could almost feel the emotion in the room change as he progressed through the story. Even characters without names such as the servant and the musician were brought to life, first with accents (Irish and Russian) and then with tiny hints as to their background. They had personality and it made every moment better.
His depth of character was used to make us think about what was happening and the motivations of the characters. Poor Paris was just an awkward kid trying to find love. Benvolio would poke fun at moping Romeo and chatterbox Mercutio. Friar Laurence and the Nurse questioned their own roles in the whole affair. Brooksbank made me think about the nurse in particular because she explained exactly why she thought Juliet should marry Paris. She saw violence in Romeo multiple times, and feared what that would mean for Juliet as a wife. These outward musings made the audience think and make the story even more powerful.
He repeatedly brought us into powerful moments through his body language. The balcony scene was acted out with only his hands. Benvolio passionately and expressively revealed every detail of the big fight in such a way that even though there was a single actor on a bare stage, we all knew exactly what happened. It was Shakespeare at his most raw. Brooksbank made sure we felt the weight of what was happening.
The most powerful moment, though, was when Romeo and Juliet first saw each other. Brooksbank allowed a long silence to hang in the air as his two hands acted out the parts of the star-crossed lovers. The silence was long, but filled with unspoken emotion. You could feel it in the air. Then he spoke the “holy pilgrim” dialogue before we were pulled back into the narration by the Russian musician.
I walked into the theatre today expecting to sit back and enjoy a quick, entertaining retelling of Romeo & Juliet. What I got was one of the most powerful portrayals of the story I have seen. And it all happened with one actor on a bare stage. Bravo, Mr. Brooksbank. I’m going to need to start saving for a trip to London.