By Sylvie Drake
Perhaps because we’re all in love with love to some degree or because we know the story so well, Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet is never far from the general consciousness or the pantheon of great plays. If anything, it may suffer from overfamiliarity, but the many versions of this story—in music, opera, ballet, theatre, film and musical comedy—reaffirm a persistent interest.
Denver Center Theatre Company (DCTC) Producing Artistic Director Kent Thompson says “everybody identifies with Romeo and Juliet and in some sense almost everybody wants to be Romeo and Juliet because [they embody] the emotional surge and intensity of the teenage years and the absolute kind of decision [we make] to love another person.
Besides, Shakespeare’s play is a tale of endless dramatic possibilities. It has fights, feuds, parental and societal intolerance, death and suicide—all the euphoric joys and profound problems that still bedevil us today.
So how do you approach staging something as well-worn and yet so vital and endlessly fascinating without retreading other people’s concepts?
“That’s the big challenge,” says director Scott Wentworth who staged the production you’re about so see. “Everyone has a scenario in their head. But Romeo & Juliet is a deceptively rich play. It’s not a closed room; it’s a mansion with many rooms.”
Shakespeare famously was never terribly interested in the process of coming up with a good story. If one existed that met his needs, why reinvent it? The origin of Romeo & Juliet was a novella by the prolific 15th century Italian Matteo Bandello, translated and transformed into a narrative poem by Arthur Brooke as The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet (1562) and recycled several times thereafter. It resurfaced in prose in 1582 in William Paynter’scollection of stories The Palace of Pleasure, which included other Bandello novellas and provided Shakespeare with handy additional plots, or partial plots, with which to enlarge his canvas (among them Twelfth Night and parts of Much Ado About Nothing and Cymbeline).
In spite of this varied provenance, Romeo & Juliet, written sometime between 1591 and 1595, is most readily identified with Shakespeare. And because it is so familiar, directors—Wentworth included—love to mine for fresh aspects of the story.
“One of the things I like to do with a Shakespeare play is to look at the end and ask, ‘what does he want to leave us with?’ With Romeo & Juliet, he wanted to leave us with the sense of a generation that sacrifices its young. That spoke to me. Equally interesting to me (and I think to Shakespeare) is the notion of Verona, of that culture. In many ways Shakespeare was always writing about Elizabethan London—for and about his world. Looking at it that way illuminates parts of the play that are often downplayed: how the society functions, what the economics are, how love and marriage figure into this world.”
Wentworth chose to set the play around 1600. In his view, the Montagues and the Capulets are venture capitalists. “Like Antonio in The Merchant of Venice,” he says, “they’re making money in business.” This aristocracy is cash poor, but owns land it sells off to the new money so it can continue to rule, while the new money loves to brush up to the aristocracy for snatches of reflected glory.
Exploring a love story in that context becomes more interesting, because it is not just about two individuals. It becomes political and cultural,” says Wentworth. “The sexual politics are important, which is part of the reason why I was not very interested in doing a modern production where the restrictions wouldn’t be as profound. To fully experience the play it’s helpful to understand the world it was written to represent.
“Shakespeare’s plays exist on two story-telling planes: narrative or horizontal and vertical or mythological. In the 21st century, we tend to be more comfortable with narrative or realism, and less interested in the vertical or mythological story that Shakespeare was interested in. At the end of King Lear, when Lear walks on with the body of the dead Cordelia, it’s an action in a narrative; but it’s also an image of tragedy with a capital T.”
Design may be one way to encompass the mythological: “I’ve asked the designer to abstract the space so it’s epic and not solely realistic,” he continued. “I wanted to have a realistic costume world but a scenic world that would provide access to the mythological story. You can do realistic acting on it—and we will when the text takes us there—but when the text seems to be saying that this language, this moment, is more mythic or psychological, we’ll have access to it in a way that a realistic setting might not give us.”
This marriage of realism and abstraction—opening up the play to engage more universal or bigger ideas and invite the audience to join the actors in that exercise—is the goal. Romeo & Juliet may be about the tragic love affair of two children, but it is also about the difficulty of achieving deep love in any world that puts up obstacles at every turn.
“With a play this rich,” adds Wentworth, “anything we can do to stretch an audience’s ability to listen by giving it the tools with which to do it, will broaden the experience for that audience. It’s in how we costume the actors, how we light and stage the scenes, how we use the music. It’s not about me telling them what I think the play’s about.
“My job in coordinating these many elements is to help people actively create the play they see—in collaboration with the actors, in the moment that they watch the play—so that they might totally engage with the production.”
But how, may you ask, does the interrelationship of fate and character move the play? How much does the one interfere with or influence the other?
“Interesting question,” Wentworth muses. “There’s an intricate and delicate relationship between fate or whatever you want to call it, and character. In the early stories on which the play is based, fate played a bigger role than in the Shakespeare. Wagner said that Romeo & Juliet is the exemplar of the Liebestod, the deathlove or lovedeath.
“It’s one of those German words that doesn’t translate well, but the connection between love and death is at the center of these kinds of stories. Fate in a way is the cumulative energy that a whole society creates. Romeo and Juliet just happen to bump into each other; the letter does not get delivered because of an accident; Romeo’s arrival before Juliet wakens at the end is terrible timing. If Juliet had had the imagination and maturity to be Rosalind [the feisty heroine of As You Like It], wear trousers and join Romeo in Mantua, she wouldn’t have died.
Because fate plays so heavy a hand, a lot of scholars think of Romeo & Juliet as a lesser tragedy than the so-called great later tragedies—the Hamlets, Macbeths and Lears—but Shakespeare was true to the genre. The individual character writing is incredibly astute. The creation of Juliet is a miracle. The nurse is a full portrait of a person. In this type of story, Time and Fate, with a capital T and a capital F, play an active role.”
It is also possible love itself was the driver. Could Shakespeare have been in love at the time?
“He may well have been. Whatever it was, it ignited that thing that he does and engaged his genius. He was able to create the greatest love story in the English language. That’s why to this day his plays always feel so real. They’re not always realistic, but they always feel real.”
This article was originally published in Applause program magazine.