“It’s very Brechtian and it’s not a usual Shakespeare production.” Rebekah Murrell
Rebekah Murrell is an actor and director from London. Her theatre work includes Anita in the Olivier Award-nominated Nine Night (National Theatre and Trafalgar Studios); currently on stage Juliet in Ola Ince’s production of Romeo and Juliet opposite Alfie Enoch at Shakespeare’s Globe; Glass. Kill. Bluebeard. Imp. and Scenes with girls (Royal Court Theatre); Whitewash (Soho Theatre; Offie nomination for Best Actress in a Play) and The Host (NYT). Film includes Pirates (BBC/Hilbilly Films) and award-winning short, Stationary. TV includes Trying, Pls Like, Being Victor, Myths and The Roman Mysteries. Radio includes The Gift, for which she received a BBC Audio Drama Award 2018 nomination for Best Debut Performance.
Rebekah made her debut as a director with J’Ouvert by Yasmin Joseph (Theatre503), which won the James Tait Black Prize 2020.
Congratulations on your role as Juliet at Shakespeare’s Globe! I’ve seen it and its fantastic, a bit of a mismatch in terms of the story in the sense that it’s a different story that you’re telling. Can tell us a bit about your character and the approach of this production, how it differs?
Yes, it’s an interesting production and I think what’s really exciting about it is that we started rehearsals for this March 2020, so we were two, three weeks into rehearsals was when Corona said absolutely no-na and we had to all go our separate ways and sit in our houses for a year and a half. And now we’re back. But funnily enough, the concept for what we’ve made hasn’t really changed. In that strange way that plays do sometimes, the zeitgeists of what we were speaking about has only been heightened, the core of what we were trying to express pre-pandemic has only now become more relevant in this kind of new world that we are navigating and trying our best to live in.
It feels quite exciting to me, but I can understand how it’s not what people expect when they come to see Romeo and Juliet. We’ve had a couple of people, tourists, one guy proposed to his girlfriend at the end of the show. And, you know, you can imagine that they’ve come from America to get engaged at Shakespeare’s Globe, expecting it to be romantic, and this is very much an anti-romantic interpretation of Romeo and Juliet…She still said yes, so I don’t feel too bad!
It is an interesting take on the story that the directors have gone for. For me, it is really important actually, because when I was researching for this role and thinking around the topic, I realised that I didn’t do Romeo and Juliet at school, so this was the first time I’d ever really encountered it.
I didn’t have any kind of like prior knowledge or expectations, I’d seen the film and so I just thought Romeo and Juliet, you know, they’re the greatest love story of all time, whatever, they really love each other.
I was reading it and I was like, oh God, this is quite bleak. It was quite intense, you know. Okay, your first love is intangible. Been there, we’ve all survived, touch wood. It starts off bleakly, so you keep reading and I thought, oh my God, this gets worse and worse. There’s so many things where you’re like ‘really?’; he murders Juliet’s cousin, and she just gets on with it! There’s this weird thing going on with duty and the overwhelmingness of desire, and it feels really intense.
When I was researching for the role, I was looking at lots of texts about love, bell hooks all about love. I was reading some great love stories, some classics, and some new ones. I love, love. I’m obsessed with reading about love. I love it, I’m so fascinated by it. I found that we do have an unhealthy narrative of love in society don’t we, where it’s the happily ever after, or, even on the Spark Notes for Romeo and Juliet.
Which I did read, but not because I needed to understand the play. This was part of the research. At the end of the Spark Notes for act five scene three, which is the final scene of the play, it says that the love has died, yet we don’t feel sad that that they’ve committed suicide. Actually, we see it as a final transcendent act of love. That’s one interpretation.
I know young kids are doing this in primary and secondary school. Yes. I know what I was like when I was fourteen, I was all over the place.
I don’t think it’s necessarily a very healthy thing to be teaching children that it’s a transcendent act of love, that the ultimate commitment to somebody is that you would kill yourself over them.
It is a really useful thing that OLA’s done, to take the classic love story and reflect it back to us with modern eyes, to disrupt our understanding of what that story really is. Hopefully, that encourages us to go out into the world and really interrogate a bit more closely, what are these ideas of love that we’ve inherited and are they healthy? Are they not? Also generally, just maybe it encourages people to kind of question what we’re being told in a more general sense, in a wider sense.
It’s very Brechtian and it’s not a usual Shakespeare production.
So why did you become an actor?
I always loved acting. My mom was singer, so I’d often be in a small drama club after school when she was off doing her gigs. When I was little, I actually got a role in a BBC TV series, I did that when I was thirteen. Then I left it and I worked with a charity for years doing workshops in prisons, in schools and people who had experienced migration, at migrant centers. I worked in outreach, and I really liked it. I did it because I wanted to use stories and the power of storytelling to change lives, I guess, in a bit of a cliche way.
I found reading and words and stories so transformative, as a little girl from Barking, so I wanted to pass that on. I really enjoyed working for the literary charity, doing the creative workshops, but something pulled me, and I went to see a play at The Tricycle called The House That Will Not Stand. I’d never been to the theatre before that and I remember seeing all these great Black actresses, in a story that felt really exciting to me. Martina Laird, Ronke Adekoluejo, Ayesha Antoine, there was just these great actresses in it.
So, I went to see it, I joined The Tricycle young company as a young actor. From there, I just really fell back in love with acting and wanted to keep doing more, I did acting courses, classes, and something called Alt. It was my community and I felt really cool to do it. So, I quit my job.
Which do you prefer, the stage or the screen?
I haven’t done that much screen work yet. They are completely different practices. I love both, but they’re completely different. I am slightly more comfortable with stage because I’ve done more stage work. But I do love both. I love, I love the thoroughness of theatre and the physical catharsis of doing a play. It’s like nothing else. It’s the most incredible feeling, tying together a story. And like I said, it’s like learning something fresh every day, I never tire of a play. I never go up on stage and think like, oh, there is nothing new for me to learn tonight. Onscreen, the intimacy of it and the quiet magic of it, and the stamina of everybody involved, and how much goes into creating this one moment that you see. They are just both incredible art forms, completely different. I don’t really have a preference.
So, talking about screen, what’s it like working with, Alfred who plays Romeo as all your screens are socially distanced?
Yes, he’s great. He does a lot of screen, he is a big star, big star of the screen. He’s brilliant. He is Romeo isn’t he, he’s so good looking and so sweet and so clever and yes, he’s just got so much energy. He’s wonderful. It’s been quite strange because obviously as you’ve seen it, it’s a socially distanced production, so there’s no snogging, not even any hugging from Romeo and Juliet. So, we have to generate all of the feeling through words and in just feeling it, which again, in the times of the pandemic, actually feels quite relevant. People have been separated from their partners, I remember in the first lockdown I had friends who were in really serious relationships, who didn’t see each other because we didn’t know what the rules were, people were existing apart, without touch and everything. And so, it feels quite relevant that we’ve had to do that. It’s great working with Alfie. Love him. He’s great.
Romeo & Juliet runs until 17th of October at Shakespeare’s Globe. BOOK HERE