Set in an urban inner city version of Verona, Shakespeare’s most famous love story is truly immersed in smoke and shadow. Erica Whyman is directing the tragedy of two star-crossed lovers in this contemporary new production of Romeo and Juliet.
I spoke to Scottish actor Karen Fishwick about taking on the leading role of young Juliet. “It’s more than an iconic role,” Karen told me. “It is an epic, challenging part to play in one of the most famous plays in the world. You think you know who these characters are and what the whole play stands for, but the more you delve into it, you realise the complexities of the characters’ strengths and weaknesses.”
Familiar with the role, the thought of playing Juliet never crossed Karen’s mind. “When I first got cast I just found it so daunting. Because the play is so well known you almost can’t reach out to the result at the end when approaching the role. You just have to live moment by moment and ask each question truthfully, knowing that curiosity of the character will eventually lead you to that,” she explained. “I’ve never done Shakespeare before, but I am learning so much every single day.”
The production takes Juliet through a rollercoaster of intense passion and powerful emotions. When love at first sight, creates irresistible desire, the two lovers are torn apart by their conflicting families. “She is a young woman who has been suppressed in her own society but has been going along with it quite happily and doesn’t really know what else to expect from life,” Karen explained. “When the Montague that she isn’t supposed to love rocks her world, from that moment on she is in a dilemma.
“I think it is important to think of 14-year-olds today and what a dilemma is to them, and how they handle it. It is so easy to keep the adult brain, but for her the discovery is new and everything is a lesson. She is very intelligent and a real quick-thinker.”
“I think if Juliet were to grow up in modern society she would have been a paramedic because of her strengths in problem solving and having to make choices in life or death situations.”
Set in modern day, director Erica Whyman is taking inspiration from our current society. “The chaos and dilemma of the state of young people is everywhere, so you don’t have to go far to draw on discovering the world that we are in,” she said. “The threat of death and danger, and the broken society of young people that are not being nurtured in the right way, are being failed by the adults with the power.”
Karen really emphasised the importance that this production has such a wonderfully diverse cast from all over the UK. “I am from Glasgow and our production isn’t just all about London based actors,” she said. Karen expressed that no one even suggested not using her own Scottish accent, and she found it ‘beautifully refreshing.’
With the RSC’s current season being directed by all-female directors, Karen gushed over working with Erica Whyman. “She has so much to say and has so much genuine and authentic passion for every project she does,” she said. “She has so much energy and is just so real and invested in every little thought you have. It is the most generous and nurturing thing you can be as a director and it’s so inspiring. If I could just be a tiny bit more like her in any way I’d be really pleased.”
Karen recently starred in the Olivier award-winning production of Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour in the West End. The glorious anthem to friendship, youth and growing up disgracefully displayed a powerful message of strong young women. Asking Karen whether she channelled any of her role in Our Ladies in Juliet, she said: “Without a doubt. People who led that production, Vicky Featherstone, Imogen Knight and all the women in the cast gave me the courage to walk forward and know that I don’t have to be a certain prescription of woman or actress to bring something to the role.”
Expressing the importance the women in her life has had on her, Karen is delighted about the RSC’s current season. “It is so cool that they have all-female directors. It is nice that it isn’t made a massive fuss over, because it is just wonderfully normal that there are three absolutely exceptional directors working on these productions,” Karen explained. “Working at the RSC is the most family orientated company to come into. It has been a very caring environment and not half as intimidating as I thought it would be.
People are all very down to earth and passionate about the work. Everyone here in whatever department is fully engrossed in what they’re doing so we can all work together to create something that people will really enjoy.”
Romeo and Juliet is on at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon until the 21st of September, tickets and information can be found online here.