Gary Owen has always loved rom-coms. When did Harry meet Sally? “It is the best.” The worst person in the world? “Incredible!” This might surprise anyone who has seen Owen’s political plays and been struck by their searing interrogations of social injustice, demotic poetry, and unsentimental power.
But the Welsh playwright has been trying to write a rom-com for years, he explains over lunch at the National Theater with Irish director Rachel O’Riordan. The two have been working together for a long time: last year, O’Riordan revived her production of his 2015 play Iphigenia in Splott, an incendiary take on ancient Greek tragedy that was an indictment of modern-day Britain. Now they are teaming up for Romeo and Julie, which puts a romcom-esque spin on Romeo and Juliet. The “ish” is key: Shakespeare’s tragedy would need quite a twist given the double suicide ending.
I saw groups of young men around Splott drinking cans of Stella – and one had a pram
“We say it’s inspired by Romeo and Juliet,” says O’Riordan. “There’s a spirit of the play in it.” Yes, adds Owen, who has updated several canonical dramas and given them modern twists. “In all classics, a dilemma is central. It can be productive to dig into that and think about how it plays out now.
His Romeo and Julie certainly has rom-com elements: teenage love, obstacles to romance, flirty retort and banter. “I wanted to write a version that was positive,” Owen adds, “where they both get something out of this relationship.” Yet it comes laced with the themes he is known for: poverty, class division, and the function of quiet, everyday heroism in the face of these injustices.
The couple, played by Callum Scott Howells and Rosie Sheehy, are both from Cardiff. Romeo is an unemployed single father who takes care of his daughter and his alcoholic mother, Julie is an A student who dreams of going to Cambridge University. They meet in a cafe one morning and something clicks.
Owen and O’Riordan first met in 2015: O’Riordan had just started working at Cardiff’s Sherman Theater as Artistic Director. “It wasn’t in the best shape. It needed a lot of help,” she says. After working in Northern Ireland and then at the Perth Theatre, she wanted to build a local identity for the Sherman. really good Welsh playwrights I know?’ I knew Gary’s work so I got in touch.”
A few months later, they played Iphigenia in Splott, with Sophie Melville in her breakout role. “We didn’t know if anyone was coming,” says O’Riordan, “because we were in the middle of budget cuts, but the first preview was extraordinary – one of the most exciting nights of my life as Artistic Director. feverish atmosphere. It felt like people were angry and relieved when they heard these words.”
The pair then performed an adaptation of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, translated into Thatcher’s Britain, and Owen’s Killology, about family abuse and toxic masculinity. Romeo and Julie, their fourth collaboration, is set once again in the forgotten corner of Cardiff called Splott, where Owen lived for 10 years. Born in Pembrokeshire and raised in Bridgend, the playwright is also working on a new play produced by Nica Burns, and another with O’Riordan. Will he keep writing about Cardiff? It seems like. “I feel much more comfortable knowing that I have some authority to write about these places and people. That comes from deep knowledge. Every once in a while I’m offered something different and I want to say, ‘Why should you choose me? There are six other writers who can do it.’”
Why choose Shakespeare’s play now? “It was quite exhausting to be in plays like Iphigenia and Killology for several years,” he says. I wanted to write something with more sweetness and humour.” However, he still scouts the class through Romeo and Julie. “It’s an obsession. I am a working-class person who eventually went to Cambridge and now I work in the theatre.” So just like Julie in the play, except she wants to be an astrophysicist? “Yeah, she’s 100% a wish-fulfilling character to me — if I was any good at math, I’d be an astrophysicist.”
Romeo, meanwhile, was born out of Owen’s interest in parenting, and especially in young fathers. “It was something I saw all the time in Splott: groups of men between the ages of 16 and 20 walking around together, usually with a can of Stella in their hands and one of them had a baby in a pram. I noticed these men when I had my own children. I was having a really hard time having a little baby – and I was just thinking about the relative privilege of my position over theirs, this idea of, ‘Oh my god, how are they handling it?’”
Meanwhile, in Splott, Iphigenia has become a shooting star that continues to burn wherever it is staged. Shortly after its original run in Cardiff, it was transferred to the temporary space of the National Theatre. “It was the first time a Welsh-made production had been transferred to the National,” says O’Riordan. “We thought, ‘Are they going to make it?’ But from the first preview it was electric in a different way. That’s the problem with truth – it transcends specificity and becomes universal.”
O’Riordan reflects on her decision to revive the piece, which features a maternity ward, last year amid NHS unrest, the nurses’ strike and the scrapping of universal credit. “To my surprise, it felt much more resonant than the first time.” It’s a further sign of the times that the pair hope to bring it back again, sure it will continue to resonate. The play is not only about the working class, but also – emphatically – about the tragedy of Britain’s forgotten underclass.
“When I wrote it,” says Owen, “there was austerity and the financial crisis. David Cameron told us we were all in it together, but at the same time there would be stories about benefit culture – this or that family gets £10,000 a week. That was something I wanted to pick up on.” This led to the character of Effie, an unruly unemployed woman who goes through the night bowing and brawling with her neighbors to a fateful one-night stand that leads to transformation and tragedy. “I wanted to say, ‘Effie may not be nice to have on your street, but her suffering counts.’ The point of that piece is to say, ‘I dare you to stop caring for her by the end.’”
Do they think working-class stories are told with more nuance these days? “I hope so,” says Owen, “but there’s still a long way to go.” And what about the diversity of audiences that consume these stories? “I think you have to put the work on stage to bring in the audience,” says O’Riordan. “That shift isn’t happening anytime soon, but it’s not going to happen at all if the stories being told don’t appeal to parts of society that are traditionally under-represented on our stages.”
What’s important, says O’Riordan, is that they are told without any form of voyeurism. “I was very careful when I directed Iphigenia in Splott. I tried not to objectify Effie or make her a figure for the working class narrative. She’s not there as a cathartic conduit for the audience to go, “Oh yeah, I get it now.” It’s more complex. She is An example.”
“You represent a specific set of circumstances,” Owen adds. “When they get on a stage like this, they become emblematic. That is why it is very nice to be able to write three plays that take place in Splott.”
Romeo and his mother, in Owen’s play, are also at the bottom of society. “What they represent to me,” says O’Riordan, “is the slide, from working class to underclass, and how close those two bands are. Julie’s working class parents paddle, but they could easily end up in the underclass — and that’s where we are politically, it’s a dangerous situation if we’re going to accept that a whole class of people don’t really matter.”
• Romeo and Juliet is at the National Theatre, London, February 14 – April 1. Next at the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff, April 13-29.