Romeo, Juliet & their legacy

Over the decades, Shakespeare's great plays have inspired many films and plays, and Romeo & Juliet has been seen portrayed in different ways over and over again. So today we shall be looking at some of the adaptations, and the re-tellings, of this masterpiece.

We'll start at the beginning, I suppose. Romeo and Juliet was first performed some time around 1597 (understandably no one is too sure, as they didn't exactly keep perfect records back then). The play follows the story of two young children, Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet, who fall in love at first meeting whilst their families war against each other. Depending on how cynical a person you are depends on how you view the courtship of these two young lovers; whether you see them as two people swept away by true love who sacrifice everything to be together no matter what, or two kids who really fuck things up for everyone involved in a matter of days.

1916 saw the first feature length adaption of Romeo and Juliet, starring Francis X. Bushman and Beverly Bayne. This silent film has since been lost, so there isn't really all that much I can say. What I can tell you is the film, and other Shakespeare-inspired films, were released to honour the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare's death. 

For a handful of decades afterwards, there were several film and TV adaptations of Romeo and Juliet, that all sailed a little bit under the radar. In 1936, MGM released their own Romeo and Juliet, starring Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer. It was the most expensive Shakespearean adaptation at the time, and while some thought it wonderfully artistic it did draw a lot of criticism for its choice of leads. Howard, who was cast to play the young Romeo, was 41 at the time. This inspired future adaptations to cast much younger leads, and in 1968 Franco Zeffirelli did just that. 

In his 'Romeo and Juliet' Zeffirelli cast Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey (seventeen and fifteen, respectively) as his star-crossed lovers. The choice was well-received by audiences, especially with teenagers who now found the story far more relatable. I think this was the first version of Romeo and Juliet I ever saw actually, and we were shown it in school when we studied it. It was quickly turned off when the nude wedding scene came on, however, much to the amusement of the rest of the class and embarrassment of the substitute teacher. At the time, it was the most financially successful Romeo and Juliet, but this was surpassed in 1996. 


Asking around my friends, the version they'd all heard of was the Baz Luhrmann 1996 movie  'Romeo+Juliet' starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. This version was to capture the MTV generation of viewers, by setting it in modern-day California whilst keeping the original text. Swords had been turned into guns, and portray the feuding Montagues and Capulets as mafia families. DiCaprio and Danes won several accolades for their roles, and this film did open up a whole new audience for the Shakespearean play. Personally, I think this is a ridiculously-messy mash-up of modern-day and Shakespearean verse, and I don't think it works for the film. While I enjoy the concept of a more modern-day twist, I just didn't engage with it the way I usually do. The titular characters just annoyed me, as they were so needy and whiny all the time. Mercutio as a drag queen was an interesting take on the typically flamboyant character that I did find myself enjoying, but it was hardly enough to redeem the film. Perhaps it was that too much focus was put on the visual experience of the film, and therefore distracted from the poignant verse. Luhrmann is synonymous with beautiful films but, whilst I enjoy his other films and do agree it's creative,  I just don't think it worked. However, regardless of what I think of it, the film certainly left its mark in the industry as for another 17 years, no studio attempted to make another Romeo and Juliet. 


2013 saw the release of a new adaptation, 'Romeo & Juliet', starring Douglas Booth and Hailee Steinfeld as the leads. The setting was in an olden-day Verona, where men wore codpieces and duels were fought with swords, but the film itself received heavy criticism when it only used chunks of the original dialogue, electing to make up its own. So, in a way it was the opposite of the 1996 film. It was an attempt to make the film easier to understand, as the setting wasn't exactly going to draw in young audiences by being as interesting as its predecessor. I can admire the film for including Romeo's duel with Paris, as that is something most directors choose to remove in order to keep audiences on Romeo's side. The film itself wasn't a crushing disappointment, just a bit slow and I didn't feel the chemistry between Booth and Steinfeld. 


Now we've looked at the adaptations of Romeo and Juliet, it's now time to consider what it inspired. 'Shakespeare in Love', released in 1998 starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes was a much more thought-provoking take on the people who inspired Shakespeare to write a tragedy such as Romeo and Juliet in the first place. Though almost-completely fictitious, it does give the play a renewed sense of mystery. Did Shakespeare write this doomed love story with someone in mind? The subject matter was a mix of new and old, telling the meeting and romance of a youngish Will Shakespeare and the Lady Viola de Lesseps. Their story supposedly inspired Shakespeare to write Romeo and Juliet, and then used her name to inspire Twelfth Night. It's a rather clever movie, and the writers clearly knew their Shakespeare. It came across so much more well-rounded than Luhrmann's version. 

I was fortunate enough to see the stage production of Shakespeare in Love when it was being performed at the Noel Coward Theatre in London back in January this year. While I do love the movie version, I know it's not everyone's cup of tea. This play, however, is different. While it follows the same plot as the movie, the play is so much lighter in tone and they really just had fun with the material. The comedy worked well for the play; they always made jokes about Christopher 'Kit' Marlow, one of Shakespeare's closest friends, being the greatest playwright in England and Will getting jealous of his success. 


My trip to see Shakespeare in Love then inspired a trend of seeing Romeo & Juliet on the stage. In the next few months, I went to see a version shown entirely through music and interpretative dance (probably wouldn't pay to see it again, but it wasn't actually that bad), one at the Rose Theatre, Kingston which had a similar concept to the 1996 film where it followed the original script but had modern costumes and music but the sets were so simplistic and elegant they didn't overpower the story itself. I even saw a live performance at the Globe, which was truly incredible as the cast poured their hearts and souls into what they were doing. Plus, it was the Globe. I know it's only been standing since 1997 but the fact it was rebuilt shows there's a history there, something to get lost in when watching Shakespeare's plays. 


'West Side Story' was a re-telling of the star-crossed lovers, now set in 1960s America. Maria and Tony (played by Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer respectfully) are our two protagonists, and are separated by the two gangs they are affiliated with. Maria is a Puerto Rican immigrant and lives in Manhattan with her brother and his gang, the Sharks. Tony is a now-retired member of the Jets, the rival gang made up of white American boys. The musical captured a very uncertain time in the 1960s, and it was cleverly done. The well-known song "America" sung by affiliates of the Sharks sing about what it's like to live in America, showing the dream they all came to the country with matched with the bitter reality that they are treated as second-class citizens in the country they are trying to consider home. It was a very interesting and well-rounded re-telling of Romeo and Juliet. 



There is just one final retelling I wish to talk about, and that is the pop opera 'Bare'. Set in a Catholic boarding school in the present, this story follows teenagers Peter and Jason, as they struggle with the forbidden love for each other and their faith. It was something that really spoke to me when I went to see it in Greenwich, and I listen to the soundtrack almost every day (for some reason my iTunes shuffle always plays it, and I'm still not tired of it). There's something clever and fresh about 'Bare' whilst staying true to the nature of heartbreak and sadness from the original text. The struggle of growing up, the temptations around you, the uncertainty of the future, the knowledge your parents have plans for your future are all areas covered in this musical, and they work so well. This was an off-broadway musical performed in America, and I saw it in London, but there are versions online performed by drama societies and schools on YouTube. If you ever get a chance,  I do wholeheartedly recommend seeing this, as sad as it is.

To be honest, there's a version of Romeo & Juliet out there for everyone, some that stick to the original text in all its glory, and others who take the inspiration and roll with the star-crossed lovers ideas. So go out and see what takes your fancy. 
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