“Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow”

The 2013 Broadway revival of Romeo and Juliet has recently been released to DVD and video on demand. I, of course, purchased it immediately upon this realization. It is my FAVORITE play after all, and this production stars my boos Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashaad. Friends, I didn’t love it. I wanted to to. Couldn’t.

My first issue is the pace. They go full throttle for two hours traffic. Perhaps I should be congratulatory here, but everything feels rushed, not urgent, not passionate, not high stakes, just clumsily hurried and therefore a bit overwhelming. Second is the cut. This is also linked to the pacing issue; with everything going whiplash fast and a very lean cut, I feel like I’m missing some pivotal opportunities for character and relationship development. It seems the goal is to be edgy, urban, grunge. Romeo rides in on a motor cycle, the major scenic element is a wall covered in spray paint tags, scaffolding for a balcony, and there oooo fire. But this push to make it swift and lean and for a younger audience is largely unsuccessful. 

I don’t know how director, David Leveaux, would speak of his concept, but race concious casting was certainly an element. The Montagues are a white family and the Capulets a black family. Not novel, not fresh, not revealing of anything but also not an obstruction. I worry that a choice like this is asking the text to say something it isn’t, but it isn’t heavy handed here, just circumstantial. Fine. A shame other ethnicities aren’t woven into this particular contemporary urban “Verona” community. But this I can get over. What I can’t so easily dismiss is the lack of chemistry. On all counts. 

Not only is there no chemistry between R&J, but there seems to be complete disconnects throughout the whole cast. Juliet and her nurse, nothing. Mercutio and the boys, nope. Even the easy, if not cliche, oft played Lady Cap & Tybalt affair was absent. So what’s the tragedy if nothing was ever at stake. If there is no love in any case then who cares. Maybe you’ve all felt this way all along, after all I’ve seen the meme



But it is a love story. A tragic “romance,” sure, but the love I’m interrogating is found in the make up and construct of all the surrogate relationships. The nurse, the friar, the fraternal bonds that all make up for lack of parental oversight. I know, I know, too academic, but my point is there is absolute love in the text. There was none in this production. There are some good performances (Bloom is serviceable in his delivery) and a few visually striking moments (remember, fire), but more than anything it makes me hungry for a really really good R&J. 

So I’ve now spent a few days down the wormhole of video on demand Shakespeare. I have to say to all the dissenting voices, pleading, “not another Romeo and Juliet.” Yes another. Please. I am still desperate for a R&J I can watch in my living room that has the excellent visual metaphors and accessibility of Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 version, but with actors who can make absolute sense of the language and capture the joy and heartbreak and complexity and LOVE in these characters and relationships. 

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“Our toil shall strive to mend”: Why Julian Fellowes fails as a Shakespearean

If you will journey back to when I started this blog, I’ll remind you I was motivated by comments about the racial/ethnic make up of Renaissance Italy on a message board about the newest R&J, you can reread that post here. That message board had me pretty fired up, and I was anxiously awaiting the release of this film so that I could revisit the the topic. Well let me just get it out the way free and easy, Verona was in fact pretty darn white. Beautiful actors, some giving great performances, but yeah, it was a general wash of white. That’s a problem and disappointment for me but here’s the ticker though, that is NOT my major gripe with the film.

So I have this mission with Shakespeare – artistic, pedagogical, and the like – to remove barriers to access. I am in love with the language, with the ginormous complexity of the plays, with their messiness and where they rest on dramaturgical faultlines, but I understand that for them to exist, excite, incite, they must be accessible. This can mean many things and manifests itself in a variety of approaches. Radical adaptation can take many forms from ballet to the animated feature film, Gnomeo and Juliet. But where do we draw the line at what IS Shakespeare versus what is BASED ON or INSPIRED BY the play of Shakespeare?

I think we’ve come to respect and expect that in many cases the plays must be cut/edited. We’ve accepted the elimination or conflation of roles. Many of us are excited to see how it’s going to be done and look forward to experiencing the “director’s take.” And even those of you that begrudge modern dress/interpretations/concepts of the texts easily forgive the use of stage lighting, multi-gendered casting, or some representational stage design. That’s to say there is no one way to do Shakepeare, and any rules are only proved by the exceptions. So I’ll admit there is a sliding scale of sorts when it comes to presenting these plays. For me, there is also a tipping point.

Lord Julian Fellowes, with his screenplay for the latest feature film release of Romeo and Juliet, tips the scale too far. This production is no exception but a direct violation of the code. He has rewritten the play in such away that newcomers may think they’re getting Shakespeare when they are not. It is a radical adaptation that is calling itself the original. It’s no Gnomeo and Juliet, Rome & Jewel or Private Romeo. It presents itself as the second coming of Zeffirelli, whose Romeo and Juliet was for the better part of the 20th century the gold standard of Shakespeare film adaptation. Directed by Carlo Carlei, dressed in Renaissance garb, and even filmed in Verona, Italy, this film sets out to pull off a grand bait and switch. And what’s worse is Fellowes’ elitist attitude that anyone with less than his Cambridge education won’t understand the play without his privileged translation. How insulting. This insults the Bard, you, and me, with my public school education and degree from a mere state college. R&J is my favorite play (so much so that as soon as I type the capital letter R and the ampersand, my device auto completes R&J for me), and I understand it just fine. Most 7th graders can read the play and walk away with the basic plot line. Fellowes’ translation, let’s call it what it is, is gratuitous AT BEST. Here’s the thing, theatre and film are ALREADY a translation of text. They convert the written word into something visual, aural, vibratory, possibly tactile. Film especially has the capacity for tremendous visual translation, and literalization of metaphor. Film as a story telling medium is full of “infinite variety,” and a thoughtful director and cinematographer should be able to outwit a pompous misguided screenwriter.

Let’s journey back to Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. A film I hardly adore, with some choppy acting by its leads, but genius in its effectiveness of rendering the story completely accessible. While Luhrmann certainly delivers an abridgment, the language he retains is Shakespeare’s, and he frames it in such a way that the audience needs no idiomatic translation of the language. Luhrmann makes the text accessible by giving his audience multiple points of entry; by recontextualizing; by suiting “the action to the word, the word to the action.” Like this brilliant example of how he handles the descriptive sword violence in the play:

Mercutio's *dagger

Mercutio’s *dagger

Or

Tybalt's *rapier

Tybalt’s *rapier

This visual storytelling and Luhrmann’s opening sequence, give us all the clues we need to know that Tybalt is a badass, a duelist with an “immortal passado” and a fierce “punto reverso.” Luhrmann’s translation far more effectively renders a bloody handed “civil brawl” than Fellowes’ Cambridge inspired jousting tourney which tidies up the family feud into poor sportsmanship. Fellowes does the text and the viewer a HUGE disservice. He does not deliver “the most dangerous love story ever told,” because it is the stuff of legend, but because he has practiced a most dangerous dramaturgy.

An honest poster graphic. Imagine that.

An honest poster graphic. Imagine that.

Julian Fellowes and director Carlo Carlei have mislabeled their product, have attempted to deceive, and have perpetuated the ugly myth that Shakespeare only belongs to a privileged elite. All Shakespeareans should know the damage this does to our cause. Fellowes must be an Oxfordian because we know Bill didn’t go to Cambridge, hell he never even made it to Uni, yet these plays exist. Go figure.

The experts have summed up the academic argument expertly here. And for reviews of the film, visit here, and here.

 

 

In White Verona, where we lay our scene

Right now you’re asking, “Seriously Dawn, another blog?” Well yes…and here’s why: two weeks ago I watched the trailer for the upcoming Romeo and Juliet film.

Romeo and Juliet is my favorite play of all time, so of course I was beyond excited to learn of a new film version and I promptly watched the trailer 3 times in rapid succession (Imdb.com lists a July, 2013 UK release). It did not escape me that there aren’t any people of color on screen in this trailer, but I intend to reserve judgment until I see the film in its entirety. I did however stop on by the message boards on imdb where another person made note of the lack of POCs in trailer. Now here is where I lost my cool…

Clearly the Baz Luhrmann contemporary setting R+J (1996), it ain’t, but the amount of willful ignorance displayed in some of the board comments set my teeth on edge. Several (and I am understating this) people responded to the initial concern of no POC with “well it’s a traditional version,” “there were no black people in Italy,” “why would you expect to see people of color.” Well friends, here is why we CAN and SHOULD desire (if not expect) to see POC in this (yes even a “traditional”) version of Romeo and Juliet, black people lived in Italy. Shocking I know but (and I don’t want to turn this into a history lesson), we KNOW that Italy sits on the Mediterranean Sea and guess where else sits on the Mediterranean? Um that would be Africa friends. And let’s please not have the “which Africans are black and which aren’t debate.” Colonization does tricky tricky things to native populations.

Let’s look at Shakespeare’s other “Italian Plays.” In Merchant of Venice a Moroccan Prince is a worthy suitor for Portia, guess where he goes to woo…you got it Italy. And had she chosen him, their little babies would have been lords and ladies, chillin in Italy…with brown skin. What about Othello…do we think he is the ONLY Moor in all of Venice? Oh and hey in The Tempest the King of Naples marries his daughter to an African in Tunis. Brown skin princes all up in Napoli. Hermia (Greece, I know, a little further down the coast), is referred to as a “tawny” “Ethiope.” I could go on.

Now I understand that Shakespeare wasn’t Italian, wasn’t in Italy, and was writing very much through an English lens, but if black people made it as far north as England, you can damn sure bet they were in Italy. Remember how the Romans conquered everybody? remember how the Roman playwright Terence was black? I’m not writing about if racism existed or the extent to which people where cruel to one another based on class and other external factors. I know that in all of human history these problems have persisted. What I am suggesting is that Italy was not the fantasy land of homogenous culture and complexion that these commenters would like to believe.

Now if this director made casting decisions that don’t include POC, he wouldn’t be the first, but we don’t get to be so simple minded as to think that all shades of people haven’t inhabited the land masses surrounding the most notorious trade route of all time.

Want a lil more info beside my rant…you got it, try this book, Black Africans in Renaissance Europe edited by T.F. Earle and K.J. Lowe. There is also the multi-volume work, The Image of the Black in Western Art…or google.

So friends this is what’s in store. Me and my love affair with Bard…sometimes love song, often times rant…praises and disappointments alike. And yes, there will be ellipses galore.