, January 2011
Romeo and Juliet is possibly Shakespeare’s most famous play, particularly outside Britain. Ask most people to name a play by William Shakespeare and the vast majority will say Romeo and Juliet. The play’s enduring appeal is such that every year in Verona hundreds of thousands of tourists flock to a little house in the city, which is said to have been Juliet’s home. Incredibly, it is one of the most visited sites in Verona! The house features the famous balcony; there’s a small courtyard with a bronze statue of the heroine, whose metallic chest is worn out due to a belief that if one strokes the breast of the statue, one will have good luck for the rest of one’s life! This is only one aspect! Another is that many people write their names and the names of the ones whom they love on the walls of the entrance because they believe that if they write on that particular place, their love will last forever! But to me, the craziest thing of all is that since the 1930s, letters addressed to Juliet keep arriving in Verona! Apparently, more than five thousand letters are received annually. The letters are read and replied to by local volunteers, organised since the 1980s in the Club di Giulietta (Juliet’s Club), which is financed by the City of Verona. Strangely enough, as Romeo and Juliet are fictitious characters even though historically there are records that the families (both the Capulets and the Montagues) did actually exist; however, only the Montagues (Romeo’s family) are said to have lived in Verona; the Capulets were probably from Cremona.
So, why do people adore Romeo and Juliet so much? It is one of Shakespeare’s earlier plays—probably written between 1591 and 1595—but definitely not one of his best or with the most intriguing plot! After all, the end with the two lovers committing suicide is a result of a series of implausible circumstances and the manner, in which they fall in love so hopelessly after having looked at each other in a ball, is not exactly believable! To my mind, the probable reason for the play’s appeal lies in the idea of youthful, pure love and the concept of fate—no matter what the two lovers do, they are doomed to die. Generally people like the idea that their lives have been “written” somewhere and they have no control over them hence such popular expressions as “it wasn’t meant to be”! Then, there is the tragic element: it is only when confronted with the deaths of Romeo and Juliet that the two feuding families find reconciliation. Whatever the reason, the truth is that Romeo and Juliet remains one of Shakespeare’s most performed plays and one that has been adapted countless times into other art forms: there are various operas, tone poems and ballets, films, television adaptations, paintings and many more!
The current offer on DVD, from the Opus Arte label, was filmed live at the Shakespeare’s Globe in the summer of 2009. It was a production that drew an array of opposite reviews, ranging from the ecstatic to the banal and mediocre. It is a production that rests on the shoulders of youth, as the two leads are bo th extremely young, which is to my mind absolutely right. After all, this is how they are described in the play. Romeo is here portrayed by the pleasantly athletic and extremely handsome Adetomiwa Edun, making it plainly obvious why Juliet falls for Romeo, the moment she first lays eyes on him. Edun’s acting though is a bit of a mix! He is at times outstanding, particularly in the scenes with his mates, then during the ball at the Capulets and in the conversations with Friar Lawrence where I found him quite moving. However, he is not passionate enough in the scenes with Juliet, particularly in the end when he believes her dead and takes his own life. It is a very poignant, touching moment if the actor is capable of conveying all the love, passion and larger-than-life emotions tearing his heart apart at that moment in time; unfortunately, Edun does not quite achieve that, although he is more convincing during the ball and the famous balcony scene. At times, I also had the impression that he struggled with Shakespeare’s verse; he looks strained, perspiring profusely in a couple of scenes and occasionally, the text comes out a little muddled. In spite of these slightly less positive aspects, Edun makes a plausible and very attractive Romeo.
As for Ellie Kendrick as Juliet, I had difficulty believing that such a Romeo, as portrayed by Edun, would have fallen for this particular Juliet! Kendrick, like Edun, is a very young actress—she was only eighteen when she played the part and actually appears younger—and although she is pretty enough, she looks too pale and her stage presence is quite subdued, at times a little dull. She was very effective as Anne Frank in the 2009 BBC mini-series The Diary of Anne Frank but, as Juliet, she fails to convince. Although she speaks the verse intelligently, generally more clearly than Edun, and is rather good in the scenes when she defies her parents, I could not for one moment believe that there was a passionate woman’s heart pulsating inside this teenage girl’s body.
The performances that I most enjoyed were actually not from the two leading characters. New Zealand-Maori actor, Rawiri Paratene is simply excellent as a strong-minded, kind and robust Friar Lawrence instead of the over-pious priest, as he is often portrayed. His diction is very clear too and he projects his voice extremely well, making Shakespeare’s verse positively glow. Ian Redford as the patriarch of the Capulet house is convincing and particularly Miranda Foster, as Lady Capulet is very believable and moving. One of the best performances on the DVD is actually from Penny Layden as Juliet’s nurse. Unlike many productions where she is more of a caricature than a real person, here she is a truly moving and dignified middle-aged woman, totally believable as the nurse who cares deeply for her charge, the young Juliet. Philip Cumbus makes a convincing melancholic Mercutio; Jack Farthing, as Benvolio, and Ukweli Roach, as the angry Tybalt, give exceptionally fine performances and deliver their lines very effectively.
This production of Romeo and Juliet by director Dominic Dromgoole is an excellent effort even though I thought that Juliet was miscast. Dromgoole is very successful with the street scenes, as the fights, choreographed by Malcolm Ranson, have great intensity and a plausible brawling aspect to them. The music by Nigel Hess is used very effectively, often sustaining the action and carrying it over. The ball scene is possibly one of the most attractive I have seen both in musical terms and in the graceful choreography by Siân Williams. The costumes are Elizabethan and the settings are minimal, as was the case in Shakespeare’s time.
The production was specifically created for the Shakespeare’s Globe, in London, which is a replica of the real one, where many of his plays were brought to life. This fact enhances the beauty of the verse and makes modern audiences understand why the language needed to be often elaborate and why many features were described by words whilst today, we would probably have a lot of special effects. In Shakespeare’s day, the special effects were the words: the passing of time was given through the text, the difference between night and day would have been expressed through speech, and the actions, emotions and behaviour were carried through the sheer beauty and expression of the verse. Let us not forget that, in Shakespeare’s time, the plays would have been performed in broad daylight and the theatre did not have a roof; neither does the present replica of the Globe. The audience stood very close to the action and to the actors, on stage, and these often addressed the public directly by making comments about the action or asking rhetorical questions, which were designed to help audiences the better to understand the plot and the message.
I found this filmed version of the live Globe production very enjoyable although it may be a good idea to watch one or two acts at a time rather than all five in one go, as it can otherwise prove a little overwhelming. However, it is worth sticking with it until the end. It is probably the closest you will ever get to experiencing a “real” performance, as it would have been when Shakespeare was alive; except if you travel to the new Globe Theatre and watch it there live on stage!