How Romeo adored her. Doted on her. Grew insufferably dopey with lovesickness and unsatisfied desire.
Not over Juliet – not yet -, but Rosaline, her cousin. It was she that drew the forbidden Romeo to the feast of Capulet, and the chance of finally claiming her precious maidenhood for his own. When his friend Mercutio mocks his love, and claims that another, fairer face will “make thee think thy swan a crow”, Romeo takes offence.
“When the devout religion of mine eye, / Maintains such falsehood, then turn tears to fires,” he protests hotly.
Eat your words, lover. Ten mentions of Rosaline later, and she vanishes from Romeo’s loin memory and Shakespeare’s script. Against Juliet’s matched infatuation and ready passion, she is retroactively transformed into a withholding wretch, her vow of chastity a spiteful injury to all hot-blooded men. Who remembers Rosaline? I didn’t.
But to remember her tilts the play from its axis. Is Romeo and Juliet about star-crossed lovers, or randy teenagers, fatally embroiled in a family feud? If the pair hadn’t gone and done themselves in, would Romeo’s love for Juliet prove to be just as inconstant when – years, weeks, days later – he clapped his eyes on another young virgin?
And how fares Rosaline, the absent woman cast into oblivion with such flippant haste?
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Such questions plague Joanna Erksine, the playwright of Rosaline and current Head of Education at Bell Shakespeare. Since reading the tragic romance as a student, the abandoned figure has haunted her.
Writing Rosaline’s story as a modern revisionist take on the time-honoured classic has been years in the making, and Erksine has fashioned it with some truly thought-provoking and subversive perspectives and twists.
In Little Trojan’s first production directed by Sophie Kelly, Aanisa Vylet plays the titular character, a 21st century woman. Boisterous, independent-minded and a little unhinged, the character lets a ladder down from her bower, forbidding her male visitors a more traditional entrance. Her presence is granted, not a given.
Romeo, the lover (Alex Beaumann), clambers up to palm her moony love poems and sulk about not having sex.
The friar (David Lynch) hauls his ageing body to ply her with some kind of opiate to keep her passions subdued, while grumpily reminding her to be chaste. And Peter, her friend, played with an easy charm by Jeremi Campese, visits regularly and tries not to make too obvious his unrequited love.
Nobody plays Juliet. This time, she’s the absent female figure who with one coy look somehow hijacked the remembered tale.
The potion that Rosaline takes (and takes too much of) impairs her memory, and she uses a handycam as a means of holding the outside world to account. Or, more often, for selfies. In the opening sequence, she holds the camera towards her, headphones on, letting loose to the singularly devastating and very aptly chosen pop song “Dancing on My Own”.
The projected images dance on her bedroom curtains. Unfortunately, given the KXT Theatre’s unique seating arrangement, they’re difficult to make out. I saw a rumple of foreshortened features, but not much else. A soft violet wash of lighting determines the mood of the play, though more vivid, warm-toned flares could’ve better matched the swelling anger and lust for vengeance.
Launched from a fascinating impulse to recuperate Rosaline – to give her a body, a voice and an unexpected power over the plot – the protagonist’s dialogue lets the drama down. One character speaks, then another, in a verbal ping-pong that defies natural flow.
Baked into the script, too, was the presumption that the audience had the story of Romeo and Juliet fresh in their minds. This risked leaving a puzzled frown on some faces, as they strained to remember what they were assigned in Year 12 English.
Bold in its ideas if patchy in its execution, Rosaline will make you wonder what other would-be leading women in the great tales have gone missing, unobserved by all but a few attentive minds.
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