Romeo and Juliet - interview with Kevin Lennon
Love will tear us apart
Steve Cramer talks to Kevin Lennon about love, adolescence and violence in Dundee Rep’s production of Romeo and Juliet
By comparison to Shakespeare’s other great tragedies, there’s a certain snootiness on the part of literary critics about Romeo and Juliet. Certainly it’s early work, and shows a certain immaturity, but does it constantly need to be compared unfavourably to the ‘great tragedies’? One undeniable strength of the play is its bankability: evidence suggests that it was one of Shakespeare’s most performed plays in the bard’s own lifetime and it remains as popular as ever, being produced in theatre and film more frequently than his more cognoscenti–approved works.
The play’s enduring appeal is perhaps due to the way in which it can create a certain universal empathy in its audience. We may be able to relate on some level to the tale of an old man who divides his wealth between two ungrateful daughters, leaving out the third, more loyal child; or a man in a privileged position killing his boss to become King of Scotland; or an ethnically marginalised man who strangles his wife in a fit of irrational jealousy. But nothing speaks so powerfully to audiences as the feeling of adolescent love. If you haven’t endured any of the former experiences, it’s hard to imagine you’ve made it to your 20s without experiencing the latter. We love Romeo and Juliet because we’ve all been there.
Kevin Lennon, an accomplished young actor with a strong record of success at Dundee Rep and elsewhere is taking on the part of Romeo, and is prepared to be sympathetic to his character, but not without a certain warts’n’all insight. He notes Romeo’s capacity to turn on an emotional sixpence: ‘Well, he’s very changeable, as we often are at that age,’ he says. ‘At the beginning of the play he’s obviously very wrapped up with the idea of Rosalind, and that seems to be all he’s thinking about. But later he feels this thing for Juliet.’
‘The point is he’s absolute, because he’s that age – he feels really passionately in love with her – we tend to be like that at that age. You can’t underrate how much in love you can feel in adolescence.’
For Lennon, though, it’s as much about general growing pains, and the need to establish your identity at a certain age, as it is about love. ‘I think the idea of rebelling against the parents is a big part of it. Juliet does exactly what her parents don’t want her to do, and at that age, young people tend to want to assert themselves against their parents. Romeo as well doesn’t have a great sense of communication with his father – they don’t speak very directly.’
Part of the modern legacy of the play, and something that seems to ring true about the piece in the postwar era, is its depiction of gang violence, whether through its musical manifestation, West Side Story or Baz Luhrmann’s 90s film version. Lennon sees this production as having a different emphasis. ‘Well, I think gang culture might come into it. There was a sense of that in the Baz Lurhmann film, which was terrific, but there’s also a lot about family in the play. The people whose lives we see destroyed by the tragedy are the members of Romeo and Juliet’s families. But of course that sense of a need to belong to something bigger among young people plays a part.’
Dundee Rep, Sat 8–Sat 29 Mar.