The Paper Stage: Romeo and Juliet (Stuart Morrison)

The first public edition of The Paper Stage was also my first experience of a staged reading of a play in its entirety and it was a valuable experience for thinking about the relations between text and performance. I will discuss, briefly, a couple of what I consider to be the most interesting aspects of this first reading.

Firstly was that the reading was held in a very public place and that our readers had to do battle with the background noise of the Gulbenkian café and especially the hiss of the coffee machines. The ambient noise of commerce was a fitting reminder that the original performers of these plays would have had to contend with the noise of London’s street sellers and associated traffic. It also felt rather fitting that these noises dissipated as the evening went on, and after sunset the grim denouement of the play was read out into an eerily quiet room.

Secondly, that everyone – myself included – paid close attention to the text of the play, even those not reading a part. This created an interesting dynamic where if one were to look up from the text one would see a circle of bowed heads, listening and reading. The combination of the oral and the literal in this way was fascinating and it caused our cast to create characters using only their voice, which was done exceptionally well. The close following of the printed text also threw up some interesting issues surrounding authority and editorial practices, the most obvious being repositioned lines that caused confusion among the cast. The variety of editions that were on display each represent a version of the play that yearns to be seen as stable, and yet this reading proved how unstable the performance of texts can be.

Finally, engaging with Romeo and Juliet in this way enabled me to focus more on the language of the play and it struck me that it can be seen as an experiment with the sonnet form. Lines are shared and rhymes are completed between characters so frequently and there is a sense that most relationships in the play are created through this sharing, whether it is best friends sharing jokes, lovers meeting for the first time, parents speaking with their children, or sworn enemies arguing in the street. Furthermore the overall linguistic structure of the play mimicked certain aspects of sonnets, first with an anatomisation of the body (focusing particularly on the eyes), second with a transition to the language of banishment and solitude, and finally with an emphasis on the language of disease, decrepitude, and death. The presence of these repeated groupings of words added to the intensity of the reading and this linguistic intensity was much more noticeable than in productions I have seen.

My experience of this first public Paper Stage reading was truly rewarding and I am looking forward to next month’s play already.


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