Stratford's New Romantics

Observer Colour Supplement
6 April 1986

The RSC's new Romeo and Juliet - Sean Bean and Niamh Cusack - talk to Lesley Thornton

"I see Romeo as quite an ordinary lad," said Sean Bean, who is playing the star-crossed lover in the Royal Shakespeare Company's new production of 'Romeo and Juliet'. "Unlike some Shakespeare this play is quite easy to relate to. Most people have felt something similar - although they would need about three months to reach the stage Romeo and Juliet do in a day."

"I think they are both making a journey," said Niamh (pronounced "Neeve") Cusack, playing Juliet, "from strong sexual attraction to something much deeper. It's a story that does grab you."

The tale of two young Italians from rich feuding families who fall in love, marry secretly, and after her father tries to force the girl to marry someone else, through a series of killings and accidents die for love, is one of the world's favourite romances. The musical "West Side Story", where New York youth gangs of the 1950s replaced the warring families of 16th-century Italy, is a recent adaptation. This new Stratford production, directed by Michael Bogdanov, is set in 1986 but still in Verona.

Juliet was a Capulet and Romeo a Montague and that led to all sorts of trouble. Bean and Cusack are both 26 but have their differences too. He used to play football for a living, she used to play the flute. His dad is a welder, her dad is a famous actor. He comes from Sheffield, she comes from Dublin.

Niamh has theatre in her blood. Her father is Cyril Cusack. Her mother, Maureen, was an actress and her two elder sisters, Sinead and Sorcha, preceded her onto the stage. All three of them played Juliet too, which has to be a record. Her parents tried to discourage their daughters from going into acting with no success except - to begin with - in Niamh's case. She loved music, was very good at it and by 23 was a successful flautist in London. But she was increasingly unhappy. "It was getting more traumatic every time I had to play." So she started drama classes at the weekends, then got into drama school but was there only a year. That summer she got work at the Gate Theatre in Dublin and in almost no time at all was playing Desdemona at Stratford opposite Ben Kingsley as Othello: a meteoric rise.

Love is close to hate in "Othello." What makes Romeo and Juliet's love so vivid, said Niamh, is the contrast with the hatred between the families. Juliet is not so much rebelling against her parents as discovering her own values. "They don't include 'making a good match', love as a business transaction to increase the power of her family." Will Juliet's father's attempt to force her into marriage be difficult to make convincing in a modern setting? "Well, her family are rich pragmatists. When money is involved there can be pressures. We pretend we are not so feudal but look at the Royal Family - Prince Charles couldn't have married anyone he wanted." An arranged, if not a forced, marriage is still something many girls in the world have to consider, including some British ones of Asian descent.

Niamh Cusack didn't get much exposure to Shakespeare at school and the Irish theatre doesn't do him that often. "At least over here kids can see Shakespeare easily." For plays are not meant to be read and it's hard for most people to imagine how they would be in action. "I'm useless at reading plays - and I'm an actress!" Some aspects of Shakespearean language are difficult. "Our vocabulary is much more limited than it used to be, I think. I had to look up Phoebus, for example. But the poetry is so youthful, it's incredibly powerful."

Sean Bean fulfilled a long-held ambition by getting into Sheffield United's reserve team when he left school at 16. He played for a year or so then hurt his ankle. By the time he could play again, many months later, he found he had lost interest. After various labouring jobs he got into college to do art. "I wanted to draw. But I had to do English too and I gradually got interested in acting. I did some amateur stuff then applied to RADA." To his amazement he was accepted. In the two and a half years since he left he has acted with the Glasgow Citizens' Theatre, at the Royal Court in London, and done several films, including Derek Jarman's latest, "Caravaggio."

One of Shakespeare's counterpoints to the noble romance in "Romeo and Juliet" is a constant flow of dirty jokes and cynicism about love from Romeo's friends (and Juliet's nurse). "I know a lot of people like that," said Sean, grinning. "It's an ego thing. If you are outrageous and boast about how many girls you've had you're cool. If you don't you're a wimp." At the beginning of the play Romeo is mooning around because of Rosaline, a girl who won't have him. "His pride's dented more than anything else. He enjoys the pain. And they are all just mucking about all day spending money. The feud has a lot to do with boredom." The love for one's family has been perverted into hate for the other family. "Romeo asks why it has to be like this." True love bowls him over completely when he first sets eyes on Juliet. "I think it happens a lot. It's something you can't explain. You can just show it."

Saying such famous lines as "But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?" (or Juliet's "Romeo, Romeo! - wherefore art thou Romeo?") is hard. "There is a block. You have to approach it as if you had never heard it before." Sean is glad he is playing Romeo in modern dress. "I can't stand running about in tights."

Acting and football are very similar, he said. "There's a brilliant feeling, going out in front of a big crowd. You feel this massive thrill, the hairs on your spine rise."

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