Romeo and Juliet and The Importance of Being Earnest set for Edinburgh Lyceum
Highlights of autumn theatre season
The autumn season at the Royal Lyceum opens with two very different shows that share the same cast and set. Director Tony Cownie tells Kelly Apter why they’re a perfect match
Two love stories by two playwrights – performed by one cast on one set. In these cash-strapped times, you’d be forgiven for thinking the Royal Lyceum was trying to save a penny or two. In fact, the innovative doubling-up of the first two shows in the theatre’s autumn season is more for our benefit than theirs.
Both Romeo and Juliet and The Importance of Being Earnest will be performed by the same group of actors, on the same set designed by Neil Murray – giving audiences a chance to compare and contrast the work of Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde, see how actors embrace different roles, and how a good set has the capacity to adapt.
‘Both shows will look very different,’ says Tony Cownie, director for Romeo and Juliet. ‘Earnest is set just before the First World War, whereas Romeo and Juliet takes place just after, so there’s a huge piece of scaffolding that covers the Romeo set from one side of the stage to the other – it’s like the building is under repair having been damaged by the feud between the Capulets and the Montagues.’
Sometimes it can be hard enough to find the right actor for one role, let alone two, so Cownie and Earnest director, Mark Thomson had their work cut out for them. ‘Obviously it’s a bit trickier than just casting for individual shows,’ says Cownie. ‘We had to cast a Romeo that could go on to play Algernon, a Benvolio that could play Jack, a Juliet that could play Cecily – there are more characters in Romeo and Juliet, so we couldn’t do it with all of them, but we did as much as we could.’
Finding new ways to present such an oft-performed play can also prove tricky, but the 1920s setting certainly provides an interesting twist for Romeo and Juliet. Not least because it gives a rationale for some of the characters’ aggressive behaviour.
‘A lot of people were still conscripted at that time, so Mercutio, Paris and the Prince have a military presence in the play,’ says Cownie. ‘And Mercutio does come across as quite a damaged individual, so I’d like the audience to question whether it’s the war that’s done that to him – what’s the reason behind it? It’s also a time when fathers could still tell their daughters who to marry – nowadays they’d just say no and run off.’
According to Cownie, Romeo and Juliet and The Importance of Being Earnest have been deemed suitable bedfellows because they’re both ‘impossible love stories’ by ‘wonderful writers’, but they also capture two base human instincts – our need for love and, in some cases, desire for conflict.
‘They’re such universal themes,’ says Cownie. ‘The beauty of love and the futility of war in all its forms – however petty these things are, they’re still the two things that human beings find themselves immersed in. Everyone’s searching for love, but we’re faced with these feuds because we’re all susceptible to falling out with each other – and look what it does.’
Romeo and Juliet, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Fri 17 Sep–Sat 16 Oct.