Pretend. Act, for one moment, as if you don’t know. Imagine that, until the moment you settle in for the prologue and hear that ‘A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life’, you don’t know that Romeo and Juliet are destined to die.
But that’s impossible. Once known, unknowing the story of Romeo and Juliet is inconceivable.
It would be like forgetting what the Mona Lisa’s coy smile looked like. Or going blank on the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth. (True, you can’t recall whether you turned your mobile phone off just minutes ago and, yes, you’d better check that before the house lights dim.) But Romeo and Juliet? Forget that they die? There’s virtue in ‘if’, but to unknow what you know? O, teach me how I should forget to think!
How, then, to present Romeo and Juliet in 2016? This archetype. This prototype. This most revived and canonised (so often plagiarised) of Shakespeare’s plays. How to give audiences something fresh, yet still true?
For some, it’s tempting to create something of a tabula rasa. A blank slate. Clear the decks. To raze the stage before raising the curtain, and so produce something drastically new. For instance, US pop star Taylor Swift rewrote the play’s ending in her 2008 ‘Love Song’, giving Romeo and Juliet their elusive happily-ever-after (‘I talked to your dad – go pick out a white dress’). While television executives at the ABC in the USA are facing something of a casting challenge when they screen a sequel to Shakespeare’s play. (A fascinating prospect given both Romeo and Juliet are dead. Reportedly, ‘Still Star-Crossed’ will follow the political marriage between Romeo’s cousin, Benvolio and his first love, Rosaline.)
But what if the answer is not to unknow or re-do. What if it’s something less cerebral, something much more visceral than that? What if – with its families and feuding and falling in love – not to mention all those other ‘f’ words that are so fundamental to what it means to be human – Romeo and Juliet simply requires us to feel? To let ourselves fall in love with the play all over again?
The language of love (and sex)
For a start, it’s not hard to be swept off your feet by the play’s poetry. The language in Romeo and Juliet is Shakespeare at his most sublime; his exquisite and sonorous best. Whose hard heart could resist:
‘Give me my Romeo; and when I shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night,
And pay no worship to the garish sun.’
‘But to be frank and give it thee again;
And yet I wish but for the thing I have.
My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee
The more I have, for both are infinite.’
For their first meeting, Shakespeare signifies the young lovers rapture as only he can: with fourteen lines of poetical perfection. The pair shares a sonnet in the ballroom scene, ignoring the fact that sonnets are the prerogative of singletons. The effect is ‘love at first sonnet’ according to Shakespearean scholar, Marjorie Garber. Also, it’s Shakespeare’s way of flirting with the conventional Petrarchan sonnet that was so popular at the time. Shakespeare likes a good sonnet, but not enough to commit. Instead, he prefers to play around a little with the orthodoxy of the form. For example, later in Act Two our playwright takes a break from dramatic convention altogether when he allows Romeo to overhear Juliet’s soliloquy in the garden. Here, her private speech, her innermost thoughts are again not solo but shared with her lover. Truly, Romeo and Juliet is a lyrical pas de deux of Prokofievian proportions. (And yes, that is a Romeo and Juliet joke, there).
But you’d be a (love) fool to think Shakespeare woos with pretty words alone. Oh no. Poetry aside, there’s sackful’s of sex jokes, too. From the bawdy vernacular of Nurse, to the lewd language of Mercutio, Romeo and Juliet is Shakespeare at his rude, crude best. Throughout the play, if those Montagues and the Capulets aren’t busy ‘unsheathing swords’ or arranging marriages, then they’re making blue jokes about maids and pricks and chinks and thighs and ‘any other part belonging to a man’. There’s enough smut here to tickle every new generation that comes along. Being x-rated doesn’t grow dated. And for this reason Shakespeare’s ribaldry – like our young lovers – never ever gets old.
Then there is our playwright’s quite brilliant use of chiasmus. As if the swordplay in Romeo and Juliet isn’t tricky enough, Shakespeare whips out some wildly witty wordplay, too. He has fun with chiasmus, where the syntax of a sentence is turned on its head, taking the sentence’s meaning with it. For instance:
‘O brawling love, O loving hate’
‘My only love sprung from my only hate.
Too early seen unknown, and known too late.’
Of course, Shakespeare being Shakespeare, such wordplay is teased and stretched to the point that the entire structure of the play becomes something of a chiastic cross that begins and ends with ‘Romeo’. (‘Romeo’ starts the play’s title, and ends the dying couplet: ‘…For never was a story of more woe/Than this of Juliet and her Romeo’.) The whole play becomes something of a looping infinity sign – a criss-cross of star cross’d lovers – where comedy/tragedy, love/death and family/feuds are paired up in the most unlikely yet illuminating of marriages.
The plot thickens
Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy of mischance. A tantalising string of ‘If only…’s’. If only Romeo had received the message about Juliet’s fake death while he was still in Mantua… If only Juliet had woken up before Romeo poisoned himself… What if Mercutio hadn’t been slain?… If only, the Friar had arrived to the Capulet tomb before Romeo… No matter how many times you’ve seen the play performed – whether you’re an R&J virgin or not – you will hope against hope. You will wish it wasn’t so. Each and every time you watch the drama unfold.
Romeo and Juliet was one of Shakespeare’s very first stabs at tragedy (after Titus Andronicus), and yet it is a master class in storytelling and suspense. The play kicks off like a comedy, with raised fists and love trysts, and a masquerade ball for good measure. But the instant Mercutio is murdered, things shift towards something much darker and far more deadly. By flitting between comedy and tragedy, just as nimbly as our hero switches his allegiance from Rosaline to Juliet, Shakespeare ratchets up the dramatic tension. Add to this the breakneck pace at which the action occurs (the entire play takes place in less than four days) and we are left reeling alongside the Montagues and Capulets at the devastating discovery of the bodies of Romeo and Juliet. The sensation that we came so very close to preventing these deaths – on more than one occasion – only heightens the heartbreak of it all.
Play with a play
So too, does Shakespeare’s sense of metatheatre. Romeo and Juliet, this tragedy of tragedies, is highly conscious of itself as a piece of theatre. It knows it is art, and it wants you to know, too. In the opening sonnet the Chorus in Romeo and Juliet previews the ‘two hours’ traffic of our stage’, before the play goes on to present a more elaborate, more spectacular, version of our own reality. And Peter Evans’ opulent 2016 production of Romeo and Juliet can’t wait to get its sequins on. Evans has set his production during the Renaissance era, complete with Anna Cordingly’s stunning 17th-century costumes, and in doing so he offers audiences something of a first. Peter Evans’ 2016 production will be the first time Romeo and Juliet has been presented as a period piece for Bell Shakespeare. Albeit with a very modern sensibility. Evans’ production is a nod to the past, paired with a wink. An embellishment. A hybrid. Something old and something new. Partly borrowed, and most definitely blue.
By Felicity McLean
Bell Shakespeare programme essay, Romeo And Juliet 2016
By Felicity McLean