A Typical Island Weekend

There’s a bit of history between me and Romeo, to be honest, as this youth has let me down on more than one occasion.

Fifteen years ago, back in the UK when I was a fifty year old mature student, I was asked by a few of my younger university friends to book a Shakespearian night out for us. There was to be a week of open air performances in some castle grounds in Leeds, alternating nightly between airings of one of the Henrys and of Romeo And Juliet. Three young ladies wanted to see the story of the star-crossed lovers, and my mate Gary Kaye and I didn’t really mind either way because, after all, ‘the play’s the thing.’

I purchased five tickets in advance and we all met up outside the venue an hour or so ahead of time on a beautiful North England country evening.

We had a couple of drinks in a nearby pub to kill the time, but stepped out half an hour later into a thunder storm that would have been better accompaniment to The Tempest or to King Lear than to Romeo And Juliet, so we all huddled up together on a front tier of seating as the play began.

We were confronted, however, by battalions of soldiers and their King. The girls, and Gary, gave me quite a bit of grief as it became apparent that mature student Norman Warwick had booked the wrong event ! My friends threw me looks, like those daggers Macbeth kept seeing. The girls in their summer clothes were soaking wet, shivering and now in the middle of a bloody battle scene, so some two acts later, when Henry whichever-he-was roused his weary troops to fight the French again with the words (and I paraphrase) ‘Rise men, we will rise again, and cross the seas and we will slay that bas…d Norman’, my group of friends turned and pointed at me and shouted ‘Yeees’ with considerable evil intent.

So, when I recently noticed that Romeo was to be here on the island for a night or two, I was determined to seek him out and give him a piece of my mind.

However, when we arrived at ‘the old town’ of Teguise, it was strangely quiet, with none of the feared marauding gangs of surly teenage youths biting their thumbs at one another and no groups of Montagues and Capulets calling each other names.

There were no seating arrangements in any of the town squares, no sign of any furtive lovers’ trysts in the narrow back streets, and some twenty minutes after the performance had been due to start we could see no signs, even, of anyone else looking remotely like they were here expecting such an event. Advertisements in the island’s glossy magazines had promised a Spanish language performance at 5.30 but by six pm we had resorted to wandering the streets shouting out, ‘Romeo, Romeo, where the heck are you, Romeo?’ Answer came there none, not even in a stage whisper from the wings.

Nevertheless, things are different here in 2018 on Lanzarote to my ‘mature’ student days in the UK, and the failure to turn up of a thirty strong cast, or the misdirection of an advertisement, are easily forgotten. The sun was by now casting shadows across the town squares and along the tower walls and all seemed to lead my wife and I to La Palmera, a lovely, unpretentious street-side restaurant. We had never been here before, or at least had never noticed it, but with a couple of tables outside already taken there was a nice buzz about this shaded corner venue. I had the hot Tortilla and Cheese in a baguette and for Dee it was Papas Arrugadas con mojo, and with a couple of beers all was again well with our world.

Looking around our location we agreed it would certainly have been a fantastic stage for the Romeo And Juliet story, what with the cobbled streets and all the houses with balconies. However, the waiter, who was a good looking young chap, (Dee thought) and was very friendly and talkative, confirmed only that he had no idea a performance had been advertised in this area for this afternoon.

A drive home from a similar disappointment in England would have been full of frustration and not a little temper, whilst bumper to bumper with other annoyed fans. Instead we travelled home watching mountain tops turn purple in the setting sun and arrived back at Casa NormanDee in the last remains of the day that despite the unreliability of young teenagers silly with romance, had left we oldies still in love with the world.

Deciding not to rely on glossy magazines anymore we opened the latest newsletter from Miguel that led us to Lanzarote Information, and there, scheduled for a week later than the date given in the magazines was the pronouncement in What’s On that Compania Burka Teatro would be giving a Spanish Language performance of Romeo And Juliet not on 29th September but on 6th October.

First Kiss

We know the route pretty well, by now, of course and immediately on arrival in Teguise there were clues that this time there might be some substance to the rumours about Romeo and Juliet. Although dressed in modern attire there was what was seemed to be a cast of actors, divided into small groups, rehearsing their movements and lines. This was all taking place in the town square in front of the Casa Museo del Timple on a sunny late afternoon. The actor who was obviously playing Romeo didn’t seem. at this distance, a particularly imposing lad, being a somewhat unmuscled sixteen year old, perhaps. He was wearing a sailor jumper and a particularly dandy straw hat, and his would be fiancée was dressed in a trendy long, flared dress, and had tumbling blond locks. Others were practising their fencing skills, and a few well scripted family arguments could be heard.

It transpired, though, that this was not only a rehearsal but also a reconnaissance of the terrain, as a director was leading the cast to and from various parts of the old town and was mapping out where various scenes would take place.

There weren’t too many prospective audience members about and we didn’t want to intrude in what looked to be some pretty serious last minute fine-tuning so we went and had a drink on the raised terrace of the Accetife restaurant and, as we had been on our aborted trip the previous week, were struck by just how this six hundred year old town might lend itself to the scenic demands of a six hundred year old play. Even this restaurant was an enormous house with several massive rooms, old wooden furniture and a huge working kitchen, being a place that must surely have once been home to families of two or three generations, with staff and servants.

Gradually the touring company members all seemed to retreat to what must have been serving as changing rooms across the square and as the promised start time of six pm was approaching we went and unfolded our fold-up chairs at what looked to be a position that would offer a good view. Maybe a hundred people had loosely assembled by now but no one uttered a word of disappointment when a gentleman came across and introduced himself as the cast’s director and our tour guide. He told us that this would be a strolling performance and that he would lead us to certain locations, or scenes, and talk to us between acts about why these venues had been chosen and what similarity there might be to Shakespeare’s own notes on the play. That sounded fantastic, but as soon as the warm round of applause for him began to fade, he made us aware of just one other thing. The performance would not be starting until seven pm.

He didn’t offer us a reason, but you know what teenagers are like,….maybe Romeo wanted to watch Happy Days, or Grease or West Side Story, for surely their male lead characters are reincarnations of Romeo. Maybe Juliet was washing her hair.

At seven pm prompt, though, the metaphorical curtains were opened. Out of the doors of the Museum stepped several belles and their beaus, who danced as musicians played and all was enchantment. On the periphery of these dancers and their courtliness, however, young lads were on the prowl.

Seeing pretty women in their finery, these youths were full of nods and winks that soon turned to nudges and bumps into those from other gangs who would rival them. Voices rose, swords clashed and an audience that was now around three hundred strong certainly noticed a change in the mood.

Romeo and Juliet met, but she being chaperoned by her nurse, who gave some fine comedic shtick in her role, the couple could not get it together as they might have wished.

As darkness fell we followed the story, as it unfolded, around the town. We were as beguiled by his love as was Romeo and in this twilight setting we had to agree with his assertion that Juliet could, indeed, ‘teach the torches to burn bright.’ There was only one stage light being employed (in a particularly dark side street), but the old fashioned lighting, still prevalent in many properties of old Teguise, lent a strange, historic hue to the events.

The audience walked in an orderly manner and hung on every word spoken by the ‘guide’ as he explained why some buildings had been chosen to replicate palaces and how the side streets and houses were much the same as the Verona that Shakespeare’s play described. To glimpse fencing duels, hear death cries and the stamp of fleeing footsteps across the cobbles was to make of each of us an eye witness. Many thought they saw a hooded man mingling through the crowds and then running away and at another juncture those of who were facing in horror two men in a fight to the death were astonished to hear the voice of Romeo from behind us shouting to the men to cease their fighting.

Being a Shakespeare play, comedy and drama were employed as strange bedfellows and so the response from the audience might sometimes be a sharp intake of collective breath and at others an explosion of laughter. All the tension was much more tangible than in a theatre and there were long, quiet moments when we seemed to hold our breath as the story moved inexorably towards its tragic ending.

As a wicked sword fight took place on the appropriately named Calle de Sangre and later as Juliet took her poison, and her Romeo followed suit, there was an absolute silence over Teguise. Only the words of the actors rang, loud and true, and in the open air, the cries and wailings of the protagonists were carried by the wind, close by the walls, down the alleys and out over the sands.

The bell tower stood throughout it all, white and light, clanging its bells somewhat disapprovingly at what was taking place on the ground below. The tower seemed to stand tutting, arms folded, face scowled, like an old grand-parent disapproving of what teenagers are coming to these days.

The directing and acting had been first rate, the very light ‘stewarding’ of the moving audience had been spot on, and the selection of the locations for various scenes had made Teguise the real star of the show.

We know there are theatrical awards that seem to be shared every year between the same few famous names of a generation of a certain age, but this year the award for best scenery will definitely be won by the former capital of Lanzarote. We all should be nominated for the award to the most patient audience, having waited a week for the production to take place, but we might even be named in the category for the much more prestigious Best Audience trophy.

Never did I think I would see three hundred and more people follow a guide through narrow and, in this atmosphere, pretty sinister streets and ignore the fact that the guide was really a theatrical device to ensure all the right actors arrived at the next location before we did. This was scenery change by any other name. What was amazing, too, was how the audience would then wrap itself around the performance area of each of these new locations, and then make way for the scores of small, young children to come to the front and then sit cross legged on the ground, in rapt silence. These young people and their families deserve an award for exceptionally good behaviour in a theatre.

Romeo and Juliet had been perfect as the title characters, he looking taller and stronger than in his street clothes, and she at times was giggling and at others carrying an aura of grandeur about her. They each delivered their lines flawlessly and were utterly believable as youngsters falling in love for the first time.

The balcony scene in which they are seen flirting shamelessly, by the nurse, had a real ring of truth, and we should not forget that many believe Shakespeare to have been the first writer to recognise the commonalities of our human behaviour.

All the supporting cast had carried great presence, particularly the priest and the aforementioned nurse. The friends, or gang members, created that sense of belonging and membership that protects but also occasionally creates a sense of righteousness that leads to violence, death and tragedy.

This had been theatre in the raw, and probably had been delivered much more in the way Shakespeare might have expected. The plush theatres of today, with their foam seats, ice cream vendors and programmes at twenty five pound a time have no relation to the kind of bear pit productions his plays were given during his lifetime. Today we usually sit in pristine conditions somewhat removed from the arena of action. In today’s theatre we are often on the outside looking in and are reliant on great actors to draw us into the heart of the matter. This was real street theatre that threw us into the midst of the trouble spots, where knife wielding youths brushed past us in the dark, where every shadow on the wall carried a threat on streets where there was sign of law enforcement.

There were, though, lessons here for life. This was a play about love and enmity and a play that reflected on human emotion. This was a performance that will live with this audience forever.

Excursion to Teguise Sunday Market.