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Romeo and Juliet

Production Notes for the October 17, 1935 staging of Romeo and Juliet
by William Shakespeare, 1564-1616

Produced at the New Theatre (London, England)
Directed by Sir John Gielgud, 1904-2000

Accompanying Documents on the Production


Infusing the production with glamorous costumes and exciting, swiftly changing sets, Motley drew unusual praise from the critics, who were especially struck by the elegance and grace of the settings. London critics echoed the praise of PLAY PICTORIAL (November 1935, pp. 26-33): "John Gielgud and Motley have combined to make "Romeo and Juliet" a feast for ear and eye. . . . The permanent set is so artfully contrived that it has always something fresh and lovely to offer. The eye lends wings to the production, and this is the swiftest Shakespeare the West End has seen." Each scene appeared to be quite different from the others.

Commentary by Michael Mullin

The 1935 production of "Romeo and Juliet" at the New Theatre came to stand as the benchmark production of the play. Theatre critics would refer to it for decades to come. On his second three-year contract with Bronson Albery at the New Theatre, Gielgud had, in effect, formed a "company" of actors with himself at the head and Motley as the company designers. Laurence Olivier joined them, scrubbing his own plan for a Romeo that season.

Renowned for its alternating of Olivier and Gielgud in the roles of Romeo and Mercutio, the production [...] enjoyed an unusually long run for a Shakespeare play and then transferred to the provinces. It was taken for granted that Motley again would design both costumes and sets, aiming at the visual unity in production that had become their trademark.

In keeping with their technique of suggesting rather than representing the period of the play, Motley turned for inspiration to the paintings of the Italian Renaissance. In 1932, they had looked to Botticelli; in 1935 inspiration also came from Carpaccio for the color scheme, the cut of the costumes, and the architectural forms and details.

Simple and effective, the costume designs were also dynamic. The script calls for several costume changes. For the ball scene Romeo and his friends appeared in masks and party attire: Capulet's guests were dressed lavishly. With changes in mood came costume changes, until, by the end of the play, the entire color scheme had gone to black--mourning wear for the deaths of Tybalt, Juliet, and Romeo--subconsciously but powerfully underlining the tragedy as a communal loss.

The colors themselves came from the paintings: deep reds, greens, grays, and browns, that made a dark palette against which the young lovers' lighter-colored garments stood out. Having found a color scheme that differentiated the two households from each other and from the rest of the townsfolk, the designers distinguished individual characters within the two groups by the style and cut of their costumes. Tybalt's costume--black hose and dashing crimson hat and cape--suggested his arrogant, impetuous nature. The Nurse--in bulky dark red and white--seemed less a figure of comic fun than a peasant, fat and slow, but shrewd and cunning. The Motley sketches make her look almost sinister, as indeed she may seem to Juliet when she counsels the young girl to betray Romeo in favor of Paris. In contrast to Tybalt, Romeo was dressed simply, conservatively, and romantically, with a loose, flowing white shirt for the scene in Juliet's bedroom.

Comments of Margaret Harris

"That Romeo was the first classical play that Larry did," recalled Margaret Harris. "He was very, very good--marvelous! He looked so beautiful. He had a yellow hat, and he insisted on having a yellow hat when we did it in New York with him [in 1940]."

As in the 1932 production [of "Romeo and Juliet"], costume changes indicated alterations in a character's state of mind or circumstances. For example, Juliet's costumes marked the progression from the young girl at the ball to the young wife bidding her husband farewell, to the corpse on the catafalque. Motley did not merely copy from fifteenth-century paintings--they used the paintings to interpret the text. "We wanted to keep the play young, to have the freshness of the colors of Spring," Margaret Harris stated. Juliet's party gown was bright red with gold stars, her nightdress a white gown inspired by Flora in Botticelli's "La Primavera." The red and gold gown emphasized Juliet's passion and youth--rather than her innocence, say, or her naivèté, a design choice that suited with Peggy Ashcroft's beauty and stage presence. The concept of a passionate Juliet was firmly grounded in the text. Her self-confidence and self assertion enable Juliet to propose marriage to Romeo and to stage manage their wedding night.

Sharing a dressing room during that production were George Devine, Glen Byam Shaw, and Laurence Olivier, young men fond of a joke, often resulting in their shrieking and shouting with laughter. "The dresser used to come up," said Margaret Harris, who tells the story. " He would plead with them. 'Mr. Gielgud says you can be heard on the stage,' and that would quiet them down for a bit. They were very rowdy boys."

One can imagine the audience's delight at the production's swift pace and visual beauty. It was a hands-down box office and critical success. "There used to be queues outside the theatre," Margaret Harris remembered. "We had a percentage of the profit for the first time. We used to say, 'Each one of those people on the queue is a farthing to us.'"

From Michael Mullin, DESIGN BY MOTLEY (Newark, Delaware; University of Delaware Press, 1995). Copyright 1995, Michael Mullin. Reproduced by permission of the author.

Cast List

John Gielgud (Romeo and Mercutio), Laurence Olivier (Mercutio and Romeo), Peggy Ashcroft (Juliet), Glen Byam Shaw (Benvolio), Harry Andrews (Tybalt), George Devine (Peter), Edith Evans (Nurse), Alec Guinness (Apothecary), George Howe (Friar Lawrence).


THEATRICAL (SELECTIVE) REALISM - created through the selective use of primary research material and careful arrangement of specific elements of a period (line, shape, color, and historic detail) so as to create the essence and impression of a period unencumbered by the minutia of extraneous details for dramatic purposes and theatrical effect. This particular set of designs is strongly influenced by the aesthetic of the period in which they were created (1935) as evidenced by the color palette and fabric treatment.


Italian Renaissance - c. 1450-1500.