Jacqui O’Hanlon: Becoming a Text Detective

Romeo and Juliet was written during the 1590s and was first performed in 1597 in London. We know that Romeo and Juliet has an enduring appeal for audiences – as the title page of the play’s 1597 edition tells us, the play was, even then, a popular success “…it hath been often (with great applause) plaid publiquely”. We believe that Much Ado About Nothing was written towards the end of the 16th century and also enjoyed many performances, which means it must have been popular with audiences.

At the Royal Shakespeare Company we have staged countless productions of both Romeo and Juliet and Much Ado About Nothing and each time they are completely different. Shakespeare’s plays are packed full of questions and challenges for the director, designer and acting company to solve. The clues to finding the answers are always somewhere in the text, but the possibilities for interpretation are infinite.

One of the most interesting questions a director needs to answer about any scene is whether it is public or private. In Romeo and Juliet we have a very private scene (the first meeting of Romeo and Juliet) happening in a very public context (Capulet’s party). That always creates a staging challenge for the director and acting company.

In Much Ado About Nothing we have the first meeting between Beatrice and Benedick; exploring which of their lines are played publically and which are played privately radically alters the mood and meaning of the scene. That’s what happens in the rehearsal room. Actors and their director try out different ways of playing scenes informed always by the clues that Shakespeare gives them; they effectively become text detectives, mining the language for clues to help inform their performance choices.

We have taken all of the ways of working of our actors and directors and set them alongside the texts of these two great plays, Romeo and Juliet and Much Ado About Nothing, that both offer wonderful introductions for students to Shakespeare’s world and work.

An actor once described the rehearsal room to me as a ‘place of possibilities’. I think that’s a wonderful way of thinking about a classroom too and it’s what we hope the new RSC School Shakespeare editions help to create.

Jacqui O'HanlonJacqui O’Hanlon is Director of Education at the RSC.