Spider-Man and Juliet: Tom Holland and Francesca Amewudah-Rivers on stage. Image: Marc Brenner

Wherefore art thou?

A Tom Holland-starring production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ has gone global—with terrible results
June 5, 2024

This April, Francesca Amewudah-Rivers was cast as Juliet in a new West End adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, built around Hollywood star Tom Holland. Within days, the company felt obliged to publicly condemn “a barrage of deplorable racist abuse” targeting Amewudah-Rivers, who is black. She had experienced an onslaught. 

My initial reaction was surprise. Not, I hope, because I’m naive about the levels of racism still experienced by black people in the UK. But because, as someone who lives and breathes British theatre, I thought this battle had been won. Catch Shakespeare in London, and you’ll struggle to find an all-white cast. (Rightly, because London is not an all-white city. Our stories are told by companies who reflect our community.)

Back in 2001, there was some comment when David Oyelowo became the first black actor to play one of Shakespeare’s English kings, Henry VI, at the Royal Shakespeare Company. But that was over 20 years ago. This summer, Toheeb Jimoh is lighting up the stage as Henry V in Player Kings, Ekow Quartey is leading the Globe’s hit Much Ado About Nothing, and Oyelowo is about to return to theatre as Coriolanus at the National Theatre. All—or so I thought—without the need for soul-searching.

My mistake, of course, was to underestimate the gulf in global reaction to your average piece of London theatre versus a production starring cinematic juggernaut Holland, better known as Spider-Man from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, object of desire to millions and boyfriend of the even more famous Zendaya.

Cultured London theatre audiences may be unfazed by a black Juliet—there have been black Juliets since Rachael Baptiste in the 18th century—but only on occasions such as this do white supremacists from Florida and teenage girls from Texas suddenly become invested in who performs here. The issue highlights not only the racism stalking the culture wars, but the alienating shift that occurs when the conversation around a specific piece of theatre—the most local of art forms, entirely rooted in place—becomes global.

I should have remembered the last time British theatre was the subject of international frenzy. When casting was announced in 2015 for the first production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the world went crazy to learn that Hermione Granger would be played by the black actress Noma Dumezweni. Dumezweni was subjected to unacceptably dehumanising language online. She responded with a grace that should never have been required of her. Much came from individuals in America, although some also appeared to be generated by Russian bots seeking to aggravate Western racial tensions.

The Harry Potter fans who trolled Dumezweni in 2015 made the same mistake—beyond the racism—as those who went after Amewudah-Rivers this year. Both groups were unable to distinguish between a piece of storytelling in London, responsive to the immediate environment of British theatre, and the pre-existing norms of a major intellectual property franchise. 

Hermione must be white, insisted the trolls, because Emma Watson, who played her in the movies, is white. Juliet must be white because she was played, in Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 movie, by Clare Danes. Yes, really. One widely shared meme, with over 17m views, showed a still of Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio in Luhrmann’s movie beside images of Holland and Amewudah-Rivers, the caption reading: “Romeo & Juliet movie then vs. now. They are rewriting history in front of our very eyes.”

It didn’t help that director Jamie Lloyd had knowingly pitched his production as a response to Luhrmann’s movie. Hence the decision to format the title to his adaptation—which, like Player Kings next door, involves heavy cuts to Shakespeare’s text—Romeo + Juliet, with a plus-sign instead of an “and”, as did Luhrmann. 

Unlike Luhrmann, his version of Shakespeare is short on spectacle, with barely any sets. But both share a fascination with street culture, and Lloyd’s show is littered with references to Luhrmann’s film.

Joshua-Alexander Williams’s Mercutio delivers the Queen Mab speech with a wide-eyed terror reminiscent of Harold Perrineau in the role, even if the references to the dark power of drugs are less explicit. The prince of Verona, incensed by the city’s brawling youths, arrives like Luhrmann’s “governor” to break up fights under the whirr of helicopter blades.

Meanwhile, Holland’s performance is pure Spider-Man. His Romeo is the same goofy, teenage everyman that fans of the Marvel universe will know and love, breaking into heroism when the going gets tough. Lloyd directs his cast to murmur their lines into microphones, but—unlike the rich soundscape of Max Webster’s recent Macbeth with David Tennant, which allowed audiences to hear the whispers of plotting conspirators over binaural headphones—there is no layering of sound or aural variation in this monotony. 

This sets up Holland for a performance that is, in every sense, one-note. There is no variety between his breathy, slo-mo speeches of infatuation for his first love, Rosaline, and his reverence for “true” love Juliet 30 minutes later. By contrast, Amewudah-Rivers shines. Unlike Holland, she earned her role in the audition room, and it shows. Juliet is the bigger role, and the wittier one: with a luminous smile and superior smarts, Amewudah-Rivers showcases the character’s ability to win each of the lovers’ verbal games. 

Freema Agyeman is also charismatic as the nurse, both women engaged in an all-too-human failure of communication with Tomiwa Edun’s careworn patriarch Capulet, played with a west African accent and convincingly channelling the battle of migrant parent to connect with his freely assimilated daughter.

Lloyd’s production is critic-proof at the box office. In his influential weekly newsletter, the theatre writer Fergus Morgan mocked the struggle for relevance felt by my own colleagues when he summed up the opening night: “Isn’t it funny to think of London’s theatre critics all sitting in the same room as Zendaya? Isn’t it nice when theatre is culturally relevant for a week?”

But most of the people engaged with this production will never see it in situ. While we took our seats inside the theatre, 200 fans lined the barriers outside the stage door to snap the best photo of Holland when he left two hours later. Video from inside the auditorium is forbidden, but video of Holland walking to his car is shared thousands of times online. How else can a Marvel fan in Indiana feel like she is with him in London? The shared space for the community built by this production is not in the theatre, but online.

Celebrity casting is not new to London theatre and Holland, a former Billy Elliot, is no newcomer to the stage. There is a risk to theatre, however, when the experience between audience and actor is relegated to a minor role within a global social media show. For much of Holland’s performance, he and Lloyd seemed to be gesturing to something far outside the auditorium—at one point, even cutting to footage from the theatre roof, as though we’re watching a Spider-Man movie.

Like politics, all theatre is local. British theatre loses out when it becomes a footnote to a global culture war.