Romeo and Juliet gets a gritty romcom reboot

Gary Owen has always loved romcoms. When Harry met Sally? “It is the best thing.” The Worst Person on Earth? “Unbelievable!” This may come as a surprise to anyone who has seen Owen’s political plays and was struck by their sharp questioning of social injustice, democratic poetry and unsentimental power.

But the Welsh playwright has been wanting to write a romcom for years, he explains, over lunch at the National Theater with Irish director Rachel O’Riordan. The two are long-time collaborators: last year, O’Riordan revived her production of his 2015 play Iphigenia in Splott, a searing take on the ancient Greek tragedy that served as an indictment of modern Britain. Now, they’re teaming up with Romeo and Juliet, giving Romeo and Juliet a romcom-ish twist. The “ish” is key: a Shakespearean tragedy would require many twists when ending with a double suicide.

I would see groups of young men walking around Splott drinking cans of Stella – and one of them would have a pushchair

“We say it’s inspired by Romeo and Juliet,” says O’Riordan. “The spirit of the game is there.” Yes, says Owen, who updated several canonical plays, giving them modern twists. “In every classic, there is a dilemma at the heart. It can be productive to dig into that and think about how it works now.”

His Romeo and Juliet definitely has romcom elements: teenage love, obstacles to romance, flirtatious repartee and entertainment. “I wanted to write a positive version,” says Owen, “where they’re both getting something out of this relationship.” However, he tackles the themes he is familiar with: poverty, class division and the role of quiet everyday heroism in the face of these absences.

Gary Owen and Rachel O'Riordan.

‘I wanted to write a positive version’ … Gary Owen and Rachel O’Riordan. Photo: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

The couple, played by Callum Scott Howells and Rosie Sheehy, are from Cardiff. Romeo is an out-of-work single dad looking after his daughter and alcoholic mother, Julie is an A-Level student who dreams of getting into Cambridge University. They meet in a cafe one morning and something clicks.

Owen and O’Riordan first met in 2015: O’Riordan had just started working at the Sherman theatre, Cardiff as artistic director. “He wasn’t in the best shape. He needed a lot of help,” she says. Having worked in Northern Ireland and then at the Perth Theatre, she wanted to build a local identity for Sherman. “I thought: ‘What great Welsh playwrights do I know?’ I knew of Gary’s work so I got in touch.”

A few months later, they staged Iphigenia in Splott, starring Sophie Melville. “We didn’t know if anyone would come,” says O’Riordan, “because we were in the thick of it, but the first preview was extraordinary – one of the most electrifying nights of my life as an artistic director. There was a febrile atmosphere in the auditorium. He felt that people were angry and relieved to hear these words spoken.”

The pair went on to stage an adaptation of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, which was translated into Thatcher’s Britain, and Owen’s Killology, about domestic abuse and toxic masculinity. Romeo and Julie, their fourth collaboration, is once again based in the forgotten corner of Cardiff called Splott, where Owen lived for 10 years. The playwright, who was born in Pembrokeshire and raised in Bridgend, is also working on a new play produced by Nica Burns, and another play by O’Riordan. Will he continue to write about Cardiff? It seems so. “I feel much more comfortable knowing that I have some authority to write about these places and people. That comes from deep knowledge. Every now and then, I’m offered something else and I want to say: ‘Why would you choose me? Six other writers can do it.”

Why choose Shakespeare’s play now? “It was a great pleasure to be in the space of plays like Iphigenia and Killology for several years,” he says. I wanted to write something with more sweetness and humor.” However, he still explores the class through Romeo and Juliet. “It’s an obsession. I’m from a working-class background who went to Cambridge and now works in theatre.” So just like Julie in the play, except she wants to be an astrophysicist? “Yes, she’s 100% a wish-fulfillment character for me – if I was any good at maths, I’d be an astrophysicist.”

Romeo, meanwhile, was born out of Owen’s interest in parenting, and particularly in young fathers. “It was something I saw in Splott all the time: groups of men, aged 16 to 20, walking around together, usually with a can of Stella in their hands and one of them would have a child in push chair. I noticed these men when I had my own children. ​​​​​​I found it very difficult to have a small child – and I was just thinking about the comparative privilege of my own position, this thought: ‘Oh my God, how do they cope?’”

Meanwhile, Iphigenia in Splott is a shooting star that keeps burning, wherever she is on stage. Soon after its original run in Cardiff, it moved to the National Theatre’s Temporary Space. “This was the first time a production made in Wales had been transferred to the National,” says O’Riordan. “We were thinking: ‘Are they going to get it?’ But from the first preview, it was electrifying in a different way. That’s the thing about truth – it transcends particularity and becomes universal.”

O’Riordan reflects on her decision to revive the drama, which features a maternity ward, last year amid NHS turmoil, the nurses’ strike and cuts to universal credit. “For me, it felt much more resonant than the first time.” It’s another sign of the times that both hope to bring it back, sure to continue to resonate. The play is not just about the working class but – especially – the tragedy of Britain’s forgotten underclass.

“When I wrote it,” says Owen, “there was austerity and the financial crisis. David Cameron was telling us that we were all in it together, but at the same time there would be stories about the culture of benefits – this family or that family getting £10,000 a week. That’s what I wanted to take on.” This led to the character of Effie, an abusive out-of-work woman who goes on benders and brawls all night with her neighbors to a fateful one-night stand that leads to transformation and tragedy. “I wanted I want to say: ‘Effie might not be fun to be on your street, but her suffering is worth it.’ The point of that play is to say: ‘I promise you don’t care about her by the end.'”

Do they think working class stories are being told more these days? “I hope so,” said Eoghan, “but there is a long way to go.” And what about the diversity of audiences who consume these stories? “I think you have to put the work on stage to bring the audience in,” says O’Riordan. “That change isn’t quick but it won’t happen at all if the stories that are told don’t involve areas of society that are traditionally underrepresented in our ranks.”

The most important thing, says O’Riordan, is that they are told there is no level of voyeurism. “I was very careful while directing Iphigenia in Splott. I tried to make sure that Effie was not objectified or that she was the skipper of the working class story. She is not there as a cathartic conduit for viewers to go: ‘Oh yes, I understand it now.’ It is more complicated. She is any example.”

“You’re portraying a unique set of circumstances,” says Owen. “When they reach a stage like this, they become emblems. That’s why it’s so beautiful to write a play in Splott.”

Romeo and his mother, in Owen’s play, are also at the bottom of society. “What they show me,” says O’Riordan “is the slide down, from the working class to the underclass, and how close those two bands are. Julie’s working-class parents are pledging but could easily slip into underclass – and that’s where we are politically. It’s a dangerous situation if we start to assume that a whole class of people are not really interested.”

• Romeo and Julie is at the National Theatre, London, 14 February-1 April. Then at the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff, 13-29 April.

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