Michael Oakley Highlights Comedy in Tragedy
by Abby Tozer
Clad in tight yellow pants, Mercutio (light footed, sharp-tongued Ned Derrington) romps through London’s beautiful and flexible Globe Theatre, tantalizing us with youthful exuberance. In a breakneck 90 minutes, Director Michael Oakley’s “Romeo and Juliet” features updated comedy and hip-hop rhythms to emphasize the transience, joy, and unpredictability of these young lives.
In this 2019 Globe production, we swim in a teenage festival of silky, silvery, white, and black flowing costumes—more goth and punk than Elizabethan. With hot dance rhythms and Rap music, the rowdy teen ensemble puts youthful hopes center stage.
Oakley’s diverse, energetic production cries out to dangerous America, where jogging in your neighborhood can instantly transform joy to tragedy. The brutal murder of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery while out running in Glynn County, Georgia, shows how Black citizens live each day on a knife’s edge. The multi-ethnic teens in The Globe’s “R&J” walk that edge, too.
The Globe production combines dystopian mix of traditional and modern: including Tik Tok style dance, Grecian patterned silk shirts, purple pleather pants, and glowing medieval iconography. Oakley provides non-stop spectacle swirling around our “star-crossed” lovers. The 400-year-old Elizabethan theater sets off the lovers’ idealism—rather like Greta Thunberg running into the Orange One at the U.N.
Mercutio creates surprise sexual tension with the brazen Nurse (charming Debbie Chazen). He flips a pair of drumsticks from his belt at the “prick of noon,” hypnotizing Nurse and Globe with slapstick comedy.
After his playful scramble with Tybalt (fiercely feminine Ayoola Smith), Mercutio cockily confides, “I am hurt!” Over roars of laughter, he whispers, “Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man!” Mirroring his mockery, we are swept up in laughter—while Mercutio expires in front of our eyes. Oakley has so successfully distracted us that we are blind to a man taking his last breath.
This “R&J” makes us complicit in Mercutio’s murder, in the same way we are complicit with the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and so many others. The production offers a window into the daily defenses of public executions in the news.
Oakley paints a harrowing picture of willful public blindness, leading to the devaluation of life.
From fires to pandemic, we are all so much “alike in dignity.” By opening our eyes to the tragedy and comedy in “R&J,” we may soften our collective hearts. This enthusiastic, youthful production brings Mercutio, Tybalt, Romeo, and Juliet back to join Black Lives Matter, today.
We can learn from the “untimely death” that Oakley touchingly paints with vibrant youthful display. London’s Globe Theatre proves that our unifying force, finally, is not death, but empathy. Let’s go to Shakespeare’s Globe–for joy and healing, too.
“Romeo and Juliet” by William Shakespeare, directed by Michael Oakley, at Shakespeare’s Globe, U.K.–Streaming at: TheGlobe.UK – to February 28, 2021.
Cast: Charlotte Beaumont, Stuart Bowman, Debbie Chazen, Christopher Chung, Ned Derrington, Hermione Gulliford, Shalisha James-Davis, Ayoola Smart, Nathan Welsh, and Jeff Alexander.
Banner photo: Charlotte Beaumont (Juliet) & Nathan Welsh (Romeo) at The Globe