Romeo and Juliet director David Muse will stage Shakespeare’s great love story as Shakespeare himself first saw it: with an all-male cast. STC Literary Associate Akiva Fox sat down with him to talk about this daring and provocative approach to a classic. To read the complete interview with David Muse, click here.
Akiva Fox: What led to your decision to direct Romeo and Juliet with an all-male cast?
David Muse: Of all the plays Shakespeare wrote, Romeo and Juliet seems to me the one that’s most stuck in our heads. It’s the one we can quote the most lines from, and it’s been done in stunning fashion in iconic film and stage versions. So the all-male convention is in part an attempt to make the play fresh and surprising for me and for our audiences. Also, some of the most influential productions of Shakespeare I have seen have been all-male.
AF: What struck you as the effect of an all-male cast in those productions?
DM: The production immediately becomes an event that has to do with performance and theatricality, the acknowledgment on the part of the actors and the audience that this is a play that we’re watching. In a way, it unlocks this world of imaginative collaboration between the audience and the actors.
AF: How do you think the all-male convention illuminates Romeo and Juliet?
DM: This is a play that’s very centered on love, when gender matters so much. Now, I’m not doing this because I’m interested in putting a gay male relationship on the stage, but I do think that Shakespeare was pushing some interesting boundaries when it came to gender in Elizabethan England. This play is set in a very consciously constructed masculine world, and a lot of what propels the grudge and the violence between these two families is masculine bravado. And juxtaposed against that are Romeo and Juliet, who behave in ways that are atypical for people of their gender in that world.
Also, when both of these roles are played by men, a lot of the performance of their love needs to live in the language that they speak. And Shakespeare was a writer of gorgeous poetry, but the reason I believe that the love poetry in this play is so glorious is in part because Shakespeare knew that two young men would be performing it. You couldn’t just count on two actors looking at each other and realistically being in love in a way that the audience was going to buy. And so the actors need to jump into the language and make its power convince us of the power of this love.
AF: How hard was it to find male actors to play women?
DM: Casting was very fun and very difficult. Of course, the hardest role to cast was Juliet, because it was a perfect storm of casting challenges: he had to be young; he had to have enough control of language to live through the poetry; he had to be a specific physical type; he had to be able to live one of the most complicated and emotional inner lives of any Shakespeare character; and he had to be feminine but not campy. In the end, the qualities I had to prioritize were being able to walk the emotional journey and having the ability to handle the language. Because if you don’t have an actor who is so blow-you-away-good that it banishes whatever discomfort you’re feeling with the convention, then the whole evening is never going to take off. The particular actor we cast is one who you are compelled to watch.
AF: Do you have anything to say to people who might be wary about an all-male Romeo and Juliet?
DM: Doing a production this way raises a lot of eyebrows. But having seen a number of very successful all-male productions, I can say that it’s less of a big deal than you think it is. You sit down in the theatre, and you give over to it. It’s also odd to me that this feels to people like such an innovative and risky decision, because in a way it’s the most traditional way to do this play. It is at the same time something that we’ve never seen before, but also returning the play to the conditions under which it was created.
AF: So if people buy tickets and take the leap with you, what do you think they’re going to take out of this production that they haven’t seen in this play before?
DM: What I hope is that they’ll go away with an image of this play in their heads that is different from the romanticized image of Romeo and Juliet that’s lodged in our consciousness. So I hope that they enter the theatre with some skepticism and leave with enthusiasm and surprise at the effectiveness of what they’ve seen. I hope it feels fresh and dangerous, which is a way that we don’t usually think of this play.