“These violent delights have violent ends.” Friar Laurence
After the success of Henry V and A Midsummer Night’s Dream last year, Romeo and Juliet called for something new. Namely, the staging of violence. Violence creates the backdrop against which the play’s central romance is set.
It is difficult for an audience to understand the stakes of Romeo and Juliet’s relationship unless they can see the hatred between the lovers’ feuding families erupt in front of them.
What’s more, the events surrounding the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt propel the story from its hopeful beginnings into the tragedy that unfolds in the back half of the play.
As such, for the play as a whole to work, the violence must feel real, immediate, and affecting.
In a minimalist production design, this presented a series of challenges. Due to our emphasis on simplicity and portability for the touring shows, the decision was made to stage the fights with knives.
Knives are one of the eight core weapons in the BASSC stage combat syllabus, and one of the most difficult to master. The knife is a fast moving, close-quarter weapon that has a powerful psychological effect not only on audiences, but on actors too.
A knife is something everyone has in a drawer at home. Everyone has likely cut themselves with a knife by the time they reach adulthood. Knives are the most common weapon used in muggings. The wounds made with knives are often some of the ugliest and most horrific. As a result, our fear of them is much greater than swords. In the modern world, they are more real to us.
Because actors are working much more closely to one another in a knife fight, and at greater speeds, their precision must be so much greater to enact the fights safely.
This meant we needed to spend time building up the techniques slowly. Then, introduce new concepts one by one that would allow us to hone our basic choreography, taking it from perfectly safe and entirely unconvincing, to being both safe to perform and convincing to watch.
Add to that our ‘twinning’ system, and the fights would have to be performed the same way in any number of different possible combinations of actors facing one another. This is a unique challenge both for the actors performing, and for me as a practitioner developing the fights.
Each character – Tybalt and Mercutio in particular – had to have a fighting style that was independent of the physiology of the actor, while being unique to the character. It had to be advanced enough to show audiences they were skilled, while not relying one actor’s inherent qualities such as strength or height. This put the emphasis entirely on technique.
For this, I researched martial arts that specialize in the use of knives, including Escrima, Silat, and Krav Maga. Adapting these techniques for safety using the principles of stage combat, we were able to create a toolkit of moves that would look distinct and convincing without exposing our actors to real danger.
We began our training process with an exercise I first saw used by master teacher Bret Yount, who taught basic knife fighting techniques from Kali before asking people to put on a white shirt. Distributing felt-tip pens and asking the actors practice these techniques against one another, actors soon discovered you cannot hope to fight with a knife without being cut. You can only seek to minimize damage to yourself, while maximizing how much damage you do to your opponent.
Once the actors had felt what it was like to use these techniques in a 'live' application, I simplified the cutting and checking drills from these styles to create a kind of scaffolding for our fights. A Verona house-style, if you will.
Tybalt would be the most advanced fighter, using joint manipulation and ground fighting to demonstrate his skill. He uses more thrusting attacks, including a signature backward thrust to the kidneys (more on this later). At the same time, he uses no-contact evasions to highlight his confidence (similar to the great Muhammad Ali).
Mercutio would use far more cuts than thrusts, a slasher by nature, with simple but emphatic additions to his arsenal including push-kicks, defensive attacks, and reversals that use the opponent’s weapon against them.
Tybalt is fluid and kinetic, seeking to control the fight from the outset. Mercutio is grounded, a counter-fighter, who breaks down opponents quickly and emphatically in response to their attempts against him.
The remaining Montagues and Capulets would use basic attacks. In the opening fights, this would allow us to highlight the principle characters’ contrasting styles against generic opponents, to set up their fateful collision course later in the play.
These two styles were informed by a contrast Shakespeare himself wrote into the play. Mercutio roundly mocks Tybalt’s style of fencing, calling him ‘the butcher of a silk button’.
During the Elizabethan era, Italy was becoming famous for its school of ‘mathematical’ fencing, known for precision thrusts and surgical point control, which would contribute to the rapier evolving into a small sword. The thrust was considered more gentlemanly, as it resulted in only a tiny puncture wound that looked ‘cleaner’ from the outside, but would almost certainly be fatal. Because this school made much use of geometry to describe 'angles of attack', Shakespeare refers to Tybalt as fencing, 'by the book of arithmetic'.
Mercutio, however is a swash-buckler – ‘swash’ being the sound a rapier makes when it cuts through the air, and a buckler being a small shield held in the off-hand to assist with defence. Meructio is much more focused more on cutting. While this creates uglier wounds and more visible loss of blood, cuts can also stop a fight without the need for death. It suggests a more 'tribal' form of violence designed to assert dominance, as seen in the animal kingdom, rather than to kill.
In the same passage of text, Mercutio refers to the “Punto Reverso” (in English, ‘reverse thrust’ or as I enjoy it, ‘backward stab’), a move in which an attacker would pass an opponent and strike around their defence into the kidney or ribs. While not a move traditionally associated with the knife, we adapted it to become Tybalt’s signature strike in his fight sequences.
Our next textual challenge came in the fatal fight between Tybalt and Mercutio. Mercutio says to Romeo that he was ‘hurt under your arm’. Romeo’s text suggests he is trying to stop the fight throughout.
For this reason, we have the two end their sequence in a mutual bind, where both have tried to strike a fatal blow and come to a standstill. Mercutio has the upper hand, but this split-second bind allows Romeo to interrupt, which gives Tybalt the opportunity he needs. He succeeds in thrusting his knife between the ribs - handily masked for the audience by Romeo.
Perhaps the greatest challenge the text serves up is how Romeo, who at the outset of the play makes clear his feelings against violence (‘Ay me, what fray was here? … this love feel I that feel no love in this’), can overcome a far more skilled opponent in Tybalt.
We are told by the text of his ‘fire eyed fury’, but it was my strong feeling we needed to give him an additional edge if the audience is to believe Tybalt’s untimely end.
To achieve this, Mercutio drops his knife when he is fatally injured. Romeo takes it up when he hears Mercutio is dead. With two knives, and one of them hidden, he can play a real advantage against Tybalt that can bridge the divide in their relative skill levels.
In our production, the line “This shall determine that,” Romeo’s last before he kills Tybalt, refers to Mercutio’s knife, hidden behind him. As he strikes at Tybalt with his own knife, he quickly follows with another strike using the hidden blade.
In the text, we are told Tybalt “Keeps time, distance and proportion”.
Romeo defeats Tybalt’s timing by introducing another weapon, changing the rhythm of the fight. He closes the distance and changing the proportions (the relationship of space and timing) to land a fatal slash to the carotid artery. Our actors achieve this by casting the energy, placing the flat of the blade onto the shoulder, and withdrawing it, while Tybalt brings his hand up to his neck to 'signal' to our audience and sell the illusion.
When studying historical fencing with rapier, my teacher once said that only one thing is scarier than fencing someone better than you. That is, fencing someone who knows nothing at all.
If an opponent does not use established techniques, you have no idea what they are going to do, and by extension, how to defend effectively against them. I wanted Romeo’s fight with Tybalt to evoke this sense of an amateur ‘not playing by the rules’ we have been told told matter so much to Tybalt.
He follows up with a disarm and two thrusts into the center mass, to tell the story both of his overflowing rage, and of Tybalt’s mystique – until he has stopped breathing, he is still dangerous.
With this sudden outpouring of violence, Romeo shocks himself to his core.
It is my hope that the fights in the show are thrilling and entertaining, of course. But more than this, I hope they are affecting. I wanted them to tell a story within themselves, as well as contributing to the larger story of the play. I hope they establish the characters and their world, and show the way violence can change a person.
Once we had our physical script, our storytelling moments, and enough confidence to perform the fights safely and with intention, I invited BASSC Certified Teacher, movement director and inspiration Yarit Dor to join us in rehearsals.
I consider myself a practitioner at the very beginning of my understanding of stage combat, and make clear to everyone I work with that we are engaging in a skill share, not an instruction. To get things to the level they needed to be at, I needed real expertise.
From there, Yarit used her considerable experience to hone and refine the performance, approve the safety measures we had taken to sell the illusions of the fight, and help build the actor’s confidence in what they were doing.
Yarit introduced new levels of detail. She got the actors isolating and articulating avoidances, so audiences could see what targets were being aimed for, to make the visual story clearer.
She then had attackers fill the empty space their partner left behind, so the audience could see that, had they not moved, they would have been struck by the blow.
She increased the level of travel through the fights, covering more ground and ensuring every attack came with a full reach, so audiences did not see the actors protecting one another.
Finally, she warned us that knife is the hardest discipline to achieve, told us to look after one another and to buy some Arnica. Accidents happen, and fighting can only ever be as safe as possible, which is never 100%.
We worked our physical script for storytelling as hard as we worked our Shakespearean text. My hope is that because of this, the fights live up to the standard of the rest of the play.
Robert would like to thank BASSC Teachers Yarit Dor, Taylor Hohman, Rob Leonard and Jonathan Leverett for their help and assistance.