“O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?” These are the familiar words spoken by Juliet Capulet from her balcony.
But in a modern take on a classic tale, several of the UK’s top legal minds took to the stage last week to perform a more unfamiliar spin-off of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
The Trial of Romeo, staged at Gray’s Inn last Monday (18 July), saw audience members act as the jury in the theatrical trial of Romeo Montague and his cousin Benvolio Montague for the murder of Tybalt Capulet, cousin of Juliet.
As the courtroom drama unfolded, celebrity witnesses were questioned on the stand by distinguished criminal barristers Anthony Arlidge QC, John Kelsey-Fry QC, Ron Thwaites QC and Clare Montgomery QC. High Court judge Sir Michael Burton presided over the antics of his fellow thespians.
Actress Jenny Agutter took the role of Nurse, while author Philip Pullman shone as a comical Friar.
“The night was a great success,” says Thwaites, who was defending Benvolio in the pioneering production.
“The audience showed plenty of signs that they were enjoying themselves.”
Thwaites secretly relished the opportunity to have a slice of the limelight.
“Michael Burton rang me up,” he says. “I thought he was collecting for charity or something. He gave me the outline of it. He caught me at the right moment. I’d never done anything like it before and I probably won’t do anything like it again.”
When he was younger, Thwaites auditioned to be a spear-carrier in the National Youth Theatre’s production of Julius Caesar. Sadly, his height let him down.
“I prefer being a barrister because I get to write my own lines,” adds Thwaites. “I couldn’t be an actor and perform the same lines six times a week.”
The event was held to raise money for the Shakespeare Schools Festival (SSF), an art education charity. SSF is the UK’s largest youth drama project, working with children aged from eight to 18 across the country.
Prior to the courtroom scene, pupils from Tolworth Girls’ School and Southborough High School performed a condensed version of Romeo and Juliet, which stopped at the crucial moment of Tybalt’s death.
Since 2000, SSF has given 100,000 young people the chance to perform Shakespeare in professional theatres. Financial and logistical support has been provided to enable nearly 5,000 school productions of abridged versions of Shakespeare plays.
Last year, 21 per cent of the schools that SSF worked with were inclusion schools, while 17 per cent of students came from ethnic minority backgrounds.
“I’d rather see kids fighting on the stage with knives than fighting on the street,” says Thwaites. “And if it helps the kids to get involved in Shakespeare then it’s a very worthy cause.”
“The idea for the trial came out of a conversation two years ago with Michael Burton,” says SSF director Chris Grace. “He suggested that Romeo should be put on trial. The actors were just a delight. They were so instructive. It was a memorable evening. Here we were doing a West End-style production, but we’re not a production company.”
Grace says that schools have already been phoning him to request a copy of the film footage from the night.
This year, the charity is working in 80 theatres across the UK with almost 600 schools, including, for the first time, primary schools.
SSF patrons include actors Kevin Spacey, Dame Judi Dench and Kwame Kwei-Armah. The charity receives no government or Arts Council funding, so it relies on the generosity of sponsors and donors.
SSF chief executive Penelope Middelboe believes the discipline of live theatre is of great benefit to the young actors taking part.
“They may well be the solicitors and barristers of the future and the communication skills and increased confidence that young people like them gain through taking part in SSF helps them to fulfil their potential,” she says.
So what was the verdict of the trial, as decided by the audience? Romeo: not guilty. Benvolio: not guilty.
“I thought the verdict was fairly just,” says Grace. “I thought Juliet’s reaction – jumping into Romeo’s arms – was great.”
Not even a handful of the UK’s top legal brains can separate theatre’s most passionate lovers.