In the last 404 years, “Romeo and Juliet” hasn’t become the world’s most famous piece of theater by staying static. A pair of productions from this past spring that prove not even four centuries’ worth of iterations have exhausted the possibilities.
Simon Godwin, who worked alongside co-director and writer Emily Burns at the helm of the mid-lockdown film “Romeo & Juliet” starring Josh O’Connor and Jessie Buckley in the title roles, has long recognized not just the inherent advantages but the necessity of reshaping Shakespeare.
“I find him to be a super empowering writer. We’ve both really broken free from a kind of reverence into an irreverence, which I think is more Shakespearean than than being loyal. In a way, you’re loyal by being disloyal,” Godwin said. “I think we’ve all been asking ourselves over the last few months, ‘What reality am I in? Am I in a dream? Am I in my home or my work? Is it the weekend, is a weekday? Who are my family, who are my friends?’ Quite early on, we made a conceptual choice that this would be a film which started in rehearsal clothes, and then let in something more cinematic as it went on.”
Last month also saw the release of “Romeo y Julieta,” a full-length audio drama adaptation of the play, starring Juan Castano and Lupita Nyong’o. Adapted by director Saheem Ali and playwright Ricardo Pérez González, working from Alfredo Michel Modenessi’s Spanish translation, it’s a gorgeous linguistic tapestry that very consciously is not presented in a specific time or place. As a result, it’s woven by a cast and crew each bringing their own personal connections to how they’ve spoken both English and Spanish in their own lives.
“We have this beautiful mezcla, this mix of languages that we put together. It allowed for the breadth of Spanish-speaking experience to be in the room,” Pérez González said. “It also allowed for a mix of different relationships to Spanish because part of the Latino diaspora is our relationship to the ‘mother tongue’ itself, which is a colonial tongue as well. But there’s this idea that you’re not really Latino if you don’t speak Spanish or if you speak broken Spanish. So we wanted to honor the children of the diaspora, like myself, who do live in this third space, this very bilingual space, that’s neither here nor there.”
Those two basic, fundamental changes — to condense a five-act play to a sparse 90-minute film and to fashion a radio production in a pair of languages — are decisions that are made from a deep love of theater and of Shakespeare precedent, not a desire to transcend the form. But when presented with the opportunity to approach the material with new eyes, these were two productions filled with people who relished the chance.
It’s easy to think of the play as a series of contrasts, built around a pair of families in constant struggle with each other. In adapting “Romeo y Julieta” along with Pérez González, Ali wanted to avoid splitting Montesco and Capuleto along discrete, divisive lines.
“I didn’t want a racial divide, where the Capulets are white and the Montagues are people of color. I wanted everyone to be a person of color. Even in terms of language, I did not want to divide language and say that one side speaks Spanish and one side speaks English,” Ali said. “I wanted to move it away from the the kind of typical visual signifiers or even linguistic signifiers of separation of these two families. That’s not the world that we’re in today. It’s much more complicated than that. Our tribalist divisions are less visible than they once were.”
One early example of finding that key common ground is Romeo and Juliet’s first encounter. Both productions offered a chance to situate that meeting in a fresh sensory context. “On stage, you basically either have to get the people off the stage or you have to put them in freeze. Here, we could be just be eavesdropping on what is essentially a stolen moment of chatting between the two of them, which was super liberating,” Godwin said.
“In the radio medium, you’re literally inside someone’s ear. Any little whisper, any breath is audible in a way that on stage, you’d have to magnify it and amplify it. I wanted the audience to feel like they were right there, like in the space between Romeo and Juliet’s lips,” Ali said.
In turn, this intimate introduction gets even closer to the context of the 1562 Arthur Brooke poem that Shakespeare himself was working from. “Shakespeare is, like all Renaissance writers in many ways, an interpreter of source material. The first Brooke poem has Juliet sat at a dinner table in between Romeo and Mercutio, both of whom take her hand under the table,” Burns said. “The idea of that physical touch and their relationship being something that’s clandestine and hidden, you can trace through ‘disguised under the table’ to ‘disguised at the dance’ to ‘disguised behind the fish tank.’ It’s a very subtle touch that happens while another conversation is happening and she’s not able to reference it. We went back to the beginning.”
As the trajectories of the two lovers starts to take shape, it’s the adults in their orbit that perhaps benefit most from these re-examinations. There’s a warmth in what Lucian Msamati and Julio Monge bring to Friar Lawrence that makes him more than the vehicle for a secret wedding. To actually see Msamati mix Juliet’s sleeping potion and to hear Monge offer words of comfort and tribute, his part in the story takes on even more weight.
One decision that also enriches both versions is centering Capulet as a mother. Logistically, it’s a chance to include more women (particularly a woman in a position of power) in a play traditionally dominated by men.
Tamsin Greig’s performance in “Romeo & Juliet” helps set the entire tenor for all of the action on Juliet’s side. In a character decision informed by the circumstances of production and carried through in the final film, Greig made Capulet’s reserved nature as much physical as emotional.
“Tamsin has spoken about this idea, the particular context of a non-touch moment in the history of mankind. Doing this during the pandemic meant that her own anxiety about touch fed into the creation of a very non-tactile mother, which perhaps could explain Juliet’s own wish to be held and ultimately, the fact that she was willing to die for this wish,” Godwin said.
That in turn feeds into a pivotal Act 3 scene that finds Capulet and Juliet in a verbal brawl over their very different marriage plans. “It’s a brilliantly written scene and the language in that scene is mind-blowingly contemporary,” Godwin said.
González notes that in “Romeo y Julieta,” Florencia Lozano delivers nearly all of Capulet’s lines in Spanish. “My father did not chew me out in English,” Pérez González said with a laugh. “The Spanish comes out because it’s that deep.” Not only does that moment provide clarity in form, the fact that the Capulet of “Romeo y Julieta” is a single mother speaks to a different kind of strength.
“That mother-daughter relationship was really unlocked in a way that I’ve never seen it unlocked. There’s a strong matriarchal bent in Latino culture. That is not to say patriarchy is just as strong in Puerto Rico as anywhere else, but the mother is ‘la que manda,’ the one who commands,” Pérez González said. “Julieta’s mother being that strong presence and Spanish speaking and Latina, really cracked something for me and for almost everybody I know who has a Latino mother.”
Both Lozano and Grieg bring a kind of composure to the role, one that can sometimes easily get lost in a production with a more boisterous, overbearing Lord Capulet. Instead of casting Capulet and her daughter purely as familial opponents, there’s much more value in showing how alike their tendencies can be.
“The first time we heard the big fight in the bedroom was totally revelatory. Suddenly I realized that these two people could have been such great friends. They are the two people in this play as smart as each other. Shakespeare tells us Romeo is not as smart as Juliet. Romeo does crap poetry and Juliet tells him what’s wrong with it. But when Juliet and Lady Capulet are talking to each other, it’s like the meeting of the two best minds.”
The play’s many fight scenes were key for “Romeo y Julieta,” not just in representing the reality of Shakespeare’s sparse stage directions but in doing so with performers scattered across different locations. Ali turned to Rocio Mendez, a fight choreographer for the stage, to coordinate an intricate, unseen series of hand-to-hand battles. From there, sound designers Bray Poor and Jessica Paz worked to pare down 10 hours of individualized punches and blows and gasps and tackles to give the illusion of members of warring families having fatal grapples in cafés and deserted streets.
The bereft Romeo of “Romeo y Julieta” is so overcome by anger at Mercutio’s death that he strangles Juliet’s cousin Tybalt. Hearing that death and being forced to imagine the presumptive hero of the story make such a rash and consequential decision makes it all the more visceral.
“In this moment he’s being pushed to the limit. He’s just seen his friend be killed, and he knows that he has to act somehow. So if he doesn’t have a weapon, what is he going to do?” Ali said. “It felt like going for something really horrific, and raw and kind of monstrous. We don’t have a world of swashbuckling swords. You remember that sound because it’s a sound that tells you so much more than if he just stabbed him with a knife.”
It was not lost on the cast and crew of “Romeo y Julieta” that one of the most consequential narrative moments in Shakespeare’s original text carries with it some chilling echoes. There’s an oddly resonant reason the play’s most important piece of information — that Julieta is only in a deep sleep — doesn’t arrive in time to avert catastrophe.
“The reason the letter doesn’t get to Romeo is because of a pandemic. There’s a plague going on,” Pérez González said. “This nun, we call her Sor Juana in honor of Sor Juana de la Cruz, she’s unable to leave because people are so afraid of contagion that they seal her up. The police won’t allow her to leave where she is in order to deliver this letter. So all of those little nuances really came out and really hit everybody in a very particular way.”
If there’s tragedy in the final outcome of Shakespeare’s story, there’s a tiny ray of hope in the fact that these productions even exist in the first place. In setting the film in a theatrical space, beginning from a blank rehearsal room and gradually evolving along the way, the end of “Romeo & Juliet” is both a death and a rebirth. It was one of the key points around which Burns first proposed the idea of transferring the canceled National Theatre production to film.
“The Prince’s speech at the end of the play is about the opportunity for Verona to regenerate as a result of this tragedy. We’re going to be experiencing this period of great turmoil, but the hope is that something is gained out of it. As the story is brought to life, the theater itself comes back to life,” Burns said.
As foundational as the play’s central romance has become, both of these projects also highlight how the consequences that the title characters face are far from their own making. As the world becomes more connected by the day, this play is also a reminder of how the unchecked enmity of today can lead to tragic, unthinkable fates.
“When you dissect ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ at its heart, it’s a beautiful love story and such a deep tragedy. It’s also a story of hate, and, in some ways, division, divisiveness and prejudice. It’s really all of these things,” Pérez González said. “People talk about how Romeo and Juliet are such young kids, but to me, they’re not the irresponsible ones. It’s their parents who are the antagonists in this piece. They’re the ones who kill their children. Shakespeare says it plainly. The Prince — Modesto Lacen, a brilliant actor — delivers these lines: ‘See what a scourge is laid upon your hate / That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.’ What a bombshell to drop on folks.”
“Romeo & Juliet” is now available to watch via the PBS app. “Romeo y Julieta” can be found across podcast and audio platforms.