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Ben Duke: 'Who Really Killed Romeo and Juliet?'

'A true original' (The Stage), Lost Dog Artistic Director Ben Duke creates work exploring the overlap between dance and theatre. He writes for Run Riot in the run up to their new show Juliet and Romeo: A Guide to Long Life and Happy Marriage at Battersea Arts Centre.

Over the years the death of Romeo and Juliet has caused me some anguish. At each viewing of this play I hope that maybe this time Romeo will get Juliet’s message about faking her own death, or Juliet will wake up in time to stop Romeo drinking the poison. They never do. And this upsets me (except for occasionally when Romeo or Juliet are just too annoying and you want them both to stab each other at the party and save us all a lot of time.) Who can I blame?

I can blame them I suppose. He drank poison and she stabbed herself. I think even a quite low level detective inspecting the bloody scene in the Capulet family vault would be able to say with conviction that they were responsible for their own deaths. But really they were just children. The age of criminal responsibility is 10 (which seems incredibly low) and was probably even lower in Shakespeare’s time when Pigs could be tried for murder and life expectancy was about half what it is now. But bearing in mind all that we now know about the insanity of the adolescent mind I think that these two should be given special dispensation and that as under 16 year olds they can’t be held responsible for what happened. 

Also they are fictional characters and therefore they have no real agency. So that means I can blame Shakespeare for their deaths. He could’ve had them sailing off into the sunset singing hey nonny nonny but he didn’t. He killed them. But then Shakespeare seems to be suggesting that it wasn’t really his fault and it was Fate that killed them off. It is like a Southern rail complaints process, there is a never ending buck passing of blame which means that ultimately there is no one you can grab by the throat and scream at.  

So instead I decided to rewrite a small detail in Shakespeare’s version which allows Romeo and Juliet to live. It is my act of revenge.

That is the show I am currently working on and am about to open. In this show Romeo and Juliet are alive and well. They are approaching middle age and in exchange for longer life they have had to make some sacrifices. Namely they can no longer speak in verse and their passion has had to settle into domestic stalemate. I thought that these two characters would thank me for the extra years of life but it turns out they are both looking enviously at the Shakespeare script and wondering if in fact they wouldn’t rather have the live fast and die young version he offers. They, like me, are struggling with the ordinariness of getting older and with the idea that they need to take responsibility for their own lives.

I am full of questions at the moment - mainly about the choices I have made in my life. At this moment I am feeling very uncomfortable about this show. It is a not abnormal feeling at this time of the creative process. I am thinking about failure and the choices I have made which mean that my successes and my failures have to take place in front of an audience. Why did I choose to make a career out of a devising process which so often feels like getting blood from a stone. The analogy works on many levels - the act is so hard and the end result so potentially pointless - what would you do with stone blood anyway? And I want to blame someone for my discomfort.

But I am not a fictional character, as far as I know, I am too old to blame my parents, I don't believe in Fate or an interventionist God so the only person who can take responsibility is me. 

One of the reasons that Romeo and Juliet has always appealed to me is because of their ultimate lack of responsibility for their own lives, love and death. They seem to be carried along by forces bigger and more powerful than they are. And that sounds great.

The problem is that in my attempts to drag them into adult hood I am coming up against my own reluctance to take responsibility. Because actually all these agents of destruction that were killing Romeo and Juliet off were doing me (and the many others in this late developing generation) a favour. They were allowing me to believe in the adolescent life and love that they embodied, to turn away from the more complicated, less dramatic, grown up life and relationship that I should have embraced about 10 years ago. I was complicit in their early death because it suited me. I killed them! Kind of. 

So now I’m going to stop killing them and let them and myself grow up a bit. 

Ben Duke, Artistic Director

Lost Dog
Juliet and Romeo: A Guide to Long Life and Happy Marriage
14-24 Feb, Battersea Arts Centre
27 Feb-3 Mar, The Place

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