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Rosaline

"there is no room for Rosaline. So where did she go?"

Before Juliet, there was Rosaline. Then Shakespeare made her disappear. Now Joanna Erskine makes space for Romeo's ex to have her say.

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Category: Theatre
Show: Rosaline
Company: KXT/bAKEHOUSE
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Rosaline: Rewriting Romeo’s Ex

Date: 29 Sep 2019

It probably started in my high school English classroom.

On first reading Romeo and Juliet, I was captivated by the forgotten woman. The figure that is central to Romeo’s world, constantly spoken about, the very reason he goes to the party where he will meet Juliet. Her name is Rosaline. But before we get to meet her, before she is given any words to say, before she enters the stage, she disappears.

She doesn’t even make it into the character list. Romeo forgets about Rosaline as quickly as he falls for the daughter of his enemy. In fact Romeo’s friends urge him to forget her. To remove her from memory. To divert his eye to other women instead. Benvolio says “I will make thee think thy swan a crow.”

Romeo forgets her. And it seems Shakespeare did too. The play barrels on and there is no room for Rosaline. So where did she go?

I like to think she was an edited character. Someone whose plot line Shakespeare was developing until the story got too big and he had to edit her out. But the fact remains there are clues about Rosaline that Shakespeare left behind. Ones which, to my surprise, seem to have gone largely unnoticed.

So what do we know about Rosaline?

We’re told that she’s beautiful. That she has a hold over Romeo but that she will not requite his love. She’s determined to remain ‘chaste.’ She’s a ‘hard-hearted wench’ and ‘torments’ Romeo. Of course, this is all from the mouths of males. Their words about her are easily translatable to our blunt, modern vernacular. We aren’t told why she behaves the way she does. But Romeo and co don’t seem to care about that.

But there’s more to her story.

Namely, Rosaline is a Capulet. She is Capulet’s niece and therefore Juliet’s cousin. Which calls into question the fact that every man and his dog seemed to know that Romeo was in love with Rosaline, but when he fell for Juliet, this was suddenly a massive problem.

It followed that if Rosaline is Juliet’s cousin then she could be Tybalt’s sister. Which led to ‘What if?’ after ‘What if?’ until I had a long line of questions to turn into possible answers.

Rosaline has been left in the margins of literary criticism as someone who personified Romeo’s obsession with the concept of love and lust, but that his love for Juliet is immediately real and true. She remains a mysterious figure. When I tried to do research on her, there was barely anything there. I always wanted to tell her story.

And then one day a friend simply asked, “Why don’t you write it?” Where Shakespeare left off, I could pick up the pen.

Why don’t we feel that we can rewrite Shakespeare?

Why don’t we feel that we have permission? It hadn’t even been a consideration to me.

Is it reluctance on behalf of this antiquated idea that Shakespeare should be put on a pedestal? That we should not deign to mess with him and his words? People are passionate about Shakespeare. Opinions are intense. Productions are held to great scrutiny. While some have open minds about stagings, many have clear and unshakeable beliefs about ‘the right way’ to do Shakespeare.

I know that in writing this play I am opening myself up to major criticism. These are not characters I have created from scratch. I’m playing with and against a globally celebrated work. People will try and poke holes in this play, try and ‘catch it out.’ Find a reason to disagree with my decisions. This is because everyone ‘owns’ Shakespeare. So everyone has an opinion, as they are entitled to. And if they take offence, I will simply say “This is my version. Write your own.”

But if we take a step back, we can see the picture more clearly.

Shakespeare was a thief.

He poached existing stories left, right and centre, and transformed them into works that we are still exploring 400+ years later. He didn’t try to hide this.

Before Shakespeare got his hands on it, Romeo and Juliet was a rambling, didactic poem, warning children to listen to their parents, playing out over the better part of a year. Shakespeare placed the narrative into the hands of the young lovers and shortened the timeframe to a mere four days. The stakes went through the roof and Shakespeare’s play is the one we still return to.

He was a constant collaborator, so why shouldn’t we collaborate with him?

Every few years there is some kind of community movement against Shakespeare. I am on both sides of the argument. A writer and champion of new work, and an enthusiast of Shakespeare’s words and genius. Do I believe there should be more new work on our stages? Absolutely. But I firmly believe the two can co-exist, and this play proudly plants a foot in each camp. It’s a new Australian play, questioning and responding to a classic. I don’t believe in presenting the classics unless they speak to our current world, unless they have questions that still need to be asked of us.

Twelve years ago, I started work on this play.

I decided to write as if Rosaline is the edited character I imagined. A series of fictional scenes that can be slotted into the original play. Because Shakespeare’s plays are not bulletproof, he’s left frayed edges and inconsistencies and gaps in time where Rosaline can fit. And, finally, we get to see the hand the forgotten woman might have played in the story we know so well.

I can’t remember how many drafts I’ve written. There are many. There was even one draft entirely written in iambic pentameter, just to test it out. I’ve done developments with Bell Shakespeare, Sport For Jove, the Bundanon Trust, and many, many actors and directors who have all fed into this story. It’s a big job, and even twelve years in I am still solving questions and plot holes daily. The process of staging this play has been incredibly collaborative.

It’s been a very long journey to the stage. Notably, the original actors who played these roles are now too old to take up the mantle. I’ve grown up too, and so has the play.

I started writing the play when I was 22.

I was a young and inexperienced writer with big ideas. Back then it was enough to simply want to tell Rosaline’s story. But in 2019, this a world post #metoo. As Artistic Director of Bell Shakespeare Peter Evans said, “Different questions are asked of this play now than when you first wrote it.” And so they should be.

At the beginning of rehearsals, Director Sophie Kelly asked me ‘Why did you write this play?’ My response, after some thought – “To give a voiceless woman a voice.” To which Sophie replied, “Ok, now that you’ve given her a voice, what do you want her to say?”

Too often, women’s narratives are controlled by men. This is the story of a voiceless woman taking control of her own story. I’m writing this play for all the underdeveloped female characters throughout history. Those who were given a voice and those who weren’t. Those who were denied agency over their own lives. Those who were forgotten.

Because I, for one, refuse to believe that Rosaline simply disappeared.

Rosaline plays at Kings Cross Theatre, October 11-26

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